May 21, 2021
Narges Mohammadi is a human rights activist, former political prisoner, and spokeswoman for the Center for Defense of Human Rights Association. She has repeatedly been detained by security forces and has been held in solitary confinement for a long time. She, along with a number of other civil society activists and former political prisoners, recently filed an in person a complaint at the judiciary court against the detention of defendants in solitary confinement. During an interview with Ms. Mohammadi, Khat-e Solh monthly/ Peace Line examined the effects of solitary confinement on the detainees' mental health and personal experiences in prison. The text of this interview is as follows:
Q: What is your description of solitary confinement cell/ space? What psychological effects does solitary confinement have on a prisoner?
NM: According to the definitions of torture in documents of the international law, harassment and pressure that is inflicted on a person, both physically and mentally, beyond the tolerance capacity of a defendant, is considered torture. Because the purpose of the solitary confinement cell is designed to put psychological pressure on the detainee and make the space unbearable, to the point that the detainee is forced to confess falsely against himself and/or others; Or admits charges that have even lead to a death sentence or heavy prison sentences; Or, under unbearable psychological pressure, detainee is forced into interviews in which he/she agrees to what the interrogators want him/her to do; All this shows that white torture (as known in International Law due solitary confinement) is unfortunately used in the prisons of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the form of solitary confinement, and we have witnessed the unfortunate consequences of that in the last forty-three years.
To clarify what psychological pressure is put on a prisoner in solitary confinement, I will try to start with the physics/physiology of solitary confinement. A solitary confinement cell is a very limited area that varies from detention center to detention center. For example, in 2001, when I was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Ishratabad prison of the Revolutionary Guards, the solitary confinement was large enough for only one person to fit. That is, when sleeping, the length of the cell was holding the height of the person and in some cases the width of the room was enough for you to open/ stretch your arms, on both sides. Of course, there were cells that you could not be able to open your arms on either side. Some prisoners were held in those cells.
So there are four walls, which are usually painted in cream or light color. The eye is irritated with these colors after a while. Because the color is fixed and there is no color variation. The walls are very close to the prisoner. There are high ceilings that generally do not have windows. For example, in Ishratabad prison, there was a very small space of approximately thirty to forty centimeters near the ceiling, from which no light could enter the cell. You could only be able to determine whether it was day or night. Or, for example, in solitary confinement in Section 209, (Infamous Evin Prison) it is true that there were some windows way up high near the ceiling, but behind them were iron sheets with holes that one could not see throughout/outside. But from those holes one could only tell whether it was day or night. Some solitary confinement in other cities are even more limited and deprived of minimal space. For example, I remember that when Zeinab Jalalian (another courageous woman prisoner) described to me and told me about solitary confinement in Kurdistan, she had lost day and night for several months because there were no openings to the outside. She said that “at one point I brushed my teeth and thought it was midnight, ready to go to sleep, when guards opened the door and took me out throughout the corridors when I saw that the sun was just above my head and it was noon. I mean, I even lost when it was day or night.”
The physics of the solitary cell is designed in such a way, in the sense of the space, absolute silence, the sense of sight and hearing and all the senses-which are the distinguishing features of humans through which one regulates and lives his/her daily life-are disturbed. For example, absolute silence, which may last for several months for some people, is very disturbing. This silence can be hallucinatory. Deprivation of air, deprivation of the sun, deprivation of walking outside the cell, sometimes puts so much pressure on a person that one really cannot withstand the situation, any longer. You add to the fact that they give you neither books nor newspapers and there is no music, radio or television. There is no paper or pen. There is literally nothing. Just as they put pressure on the body, they also put pressure on the brain by restricting sight, sounds, and what other five human senses interact with. This means that no data enters your mind. No news and information, from sight and smell to sound. So over time, the mind seems to lose its functioning. As much as the body is pressed into this solitary cell vacuum, the mind suffers from these serious disorders, deprivation and gets damaged. Those who explain white torture say that just as the body needs air and food to survive, so the mind needs data and information to survive and function, and when that data does not arrive, it actually disrupts the functioning of the mind. Somehow, in this vacuum of thoughts and information, the mind slowly moves towards extinction and decay. This is exactly where the interrogator can prepare the mind for the project, considering entering the mind by providing incorrect information and data, through targeted data and channeled news and analysis; Or the restrictions they impose on the individual, in effect pressuring the detainee into solitary confinement in such a way that even, if he is aware of what is being given to him in the form of false news or misinterpretation, the detainee In order to escape from loneliness, isolation and solitary, he/she tries to approach and delight/ cozy self with the interrogator and the interrogation environment, and he/she slowly settles in that space and continues with that logic, way and discourse that the dominant interrogator constructs. Here the detainee becomes the interrogator's project/subject to work on.
Therefore, I would like to say that due to the restrictions placed on the prisoner in solitary confinement, both physically and mentally, the detainee in solitary confinement, at the request of the interrogator, and particularly when it is accompanied by psychological pressures and Interrogators' threats i.e., if you are constantly threatened in the cell that if you do not do what they want, for example, your family members will be arrested and transferred to this place. Your, spouse, sister, brother, child or parent that interrogators have already accessed your private information on your confiscated cell phones, laptops, or other personal items in their possession, and by threatening to disclose your private information if you do not comply with the interrogators' demands, this is another layer that the detainee is subjected to psychological and mental pressure.
For someone trapped in solitary confinement, unable to talk to anyone, and in that space experiencing loneliness, isolation, emptiness, with no protection, and helplessness, these pressures exhaust the detainee. Thus, from a psychological point of view, in relation to the elimination of the input of information and data, both physically and mentally, which occurs to human beings, a person can lose mental balance or may suffer from mental and psychological disorders. They develop serious sleep disorders, anxiety disorders or even some of the people experiencing solitary confinement. I spoke to say that we were delusional in solitary confinement. Like hearing a sound or seeing things (that were not really there). All of this creates a set of conditions for a person held in solitary confinement who has to take steps, willingly or unwillingly, to get out of this situation. Actions that are under pressure and torture and are unfortunately cited (as facts) in the courts of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and judges rule base on them. In fact, human rights activists seek to ensure/establish that, under The Article 39 of the Constitution (of IRI), which prohibits torture, and of course, confessions made under the torture cannot be accepted and have no legal validity. Human rights activists seek to treat solitary confinement as a tool of torture and confession resulting from solitary confinement as a confession under torture, and to limit and halt this process in order to provide at least a relatively better atmosphere for the detainee in prison.
Q: During detention, the detainee faces long-term interrogation and uncertainty; he does not even know how long he is kept in this cell. The interrogator also wants to break him down in the same way you said and affect his spirit in the direction the interrogator intends to break him down. In many cases, detainees said they spent days and weeks in solitary confinement without being questioned by the interrogator. Some said that in some situations in solitary confinement, even though they did not realize this, they thought of committing suicide. But there have been cases that have progressed to the stage of suicide attempt. The question is how, does the thought of suicide gain strength in solitary confinement, and what makes the prisoner willing to end his/her life to get rid the situation they are in?
Most people who stay in solitary confinement for a long time think about death or suicide, which I think is a very important component in proving that solitary confinement is a form of torture in terms of the psychological pressure that exerts on the detainee in solitary confinement. I divide the solitary cell into two parts. Part of this is physical condition and the elimination of sound, sunlight and any possibility for human daily life. Another part is purposeful and planned. From the kind of prison guard treatment to the kind of interrogation that a person in solitary confinement faces, forces the person to face a very big crisis. Sometimes a person has doubts about being human. Sometimes a person is intellectually and ideologically hesitant/unsure about political positions and all his beliefs. That is, the prisoner slowly loses the things that make him his personality and identity, who am I, and what I have done and what I am doing here now; There is confusion, confusion and confusion about all this. Sometimes a person gets lost in prison. It gets lost in the cell. When everything that reminds you of your identity and personality is taken away from you, it could be physically grabbing your clothes, taking off your glasses, or even the secret flower with which you gathered your hair. They take everything from you that reminds you of what your identity and your original self has been. They want to separate you from yourself. Create distance. You should not stay with the political positions you hold. You should not stay with the thoughts and ideas you had. You should not stay with the identity you had in the community, with your family and with yourself. In fact, the interrogator wants to separate you from your true self through solitary confinement and white torture. So, in this state, this state of doubt, this state of doubt and hesitation, or getting lost or confused in the cell with all this, puts one on the verge of real collapse; This collapse is very hard to bear. To many who have endured both white and mental and physical torture, enduring these moments of disintegration, these moments of loneliness and isolation and emptiness and indecision, and this loss in a cell, is far more deadly and severe than physical torture. In addition, in physical torture, any infliction of pain or beatings inflicted on a prisoner make the separation of the interrogator's line of demarcation from the prisoner's line more vivid, explicit, and transparent. But in solitary confinement, there is another danger, and that is that the interrogator will not face you ostensibly as a torturer. You cannot see the line that relates to the interrogator and the torturer in physical torture, with the same symbolism and explicitness, see your interrogator in solitary confinement and sets the rule, and these are the places where one is analyzed. And it could lead to the wrong conclusion, and many times people think that they have lost the motivation of resistance, the power of resistance, have lost their true self, or have become distantly skeptical about positions about themselves, and have become skeptical about those positions. , It becomes impossible for them to survive in the cell and they often think of suicide and death.
Q: You have experienced solitary confinement and then transferred back to a public ward. When a prisoner is brought from solitary confinement to the public, what is it like to face a person who may not have been in contact with anyone for days or months? Based on your personal experience, what was this encounter like and what is the image of those days in your mind?
NM: There are people who endure and resist solitary confinement and enter public wards, and this sense of resistance is still with them. But most of the time, when someone comes out of solitary confinement, they experience confusion and disbelief. Some of them suffer from severe depression. I always told my friends to watch the eyes of someone coming out of solitary confinement. Their eyes show panic and anxiety; the restlessness and anxiety caused by the stress in solitary confinement are clearly visible in their eyes. I think the first thing you could see and guess in the appearance of these people coming from solitary confinement is their gaze; there was fear and anxiety in their eyes. For example, when a friend of mine came out of solitary confinement, she had severe sleep disorders. Another friend of mine was very anxious when she came. That is, she could not sit still. She could not last more than a few minutes on a chair or sitting. She used to go downstairs, yard, club and other sections and back up. She was not resting on her bed, and this restlessness was due to the same mental pressures of solitary confinement. Or someone who was asleep and when he woke her up she thought she was in solitary confinement and therefore very disturbed from sleeping. Just for fear that the moment she wakes up she does not recognize whether she is in solitary confinement or not. I had another friend who ate strangely when she came out of solitary confinement. That is, if she was eating now, she would feel very weak for another half an hour and would think that she should eat again. She eats again half an hour later; It was as if everyone and herself included realized that this was not a normal form, and sometimes when her anxiety level was very high, she thought she was hungry and calmed herself by eating.
Anyway, I saw a lot of people who were not really normal when they entered the public ward from solitary confinement. Especially if they came from a long-term solitary confinement, these behaviors and disorders such as sleep and anxiety and lack of concentration and all that could be seen in these people. Some of them came in with severe physical problems. They generally had knee pain, back pain, shoulder pain and neck pain. Apart from the fact that there is no room for activity and mobility in solitary confinement, there is sitting and standing on the floor and there are no beds or chairs, or it is not possible for them to walk properly. They had complications in the vertebrae of the neck, back and knees and suffered a lot of pain. I remember when one of the women came out of solitary confinement; black discharge came out of her chest. It was very strange for me too. She waited for the gynecologist to come. When she went to the doctor, she could not diagnose and they finally gave her sedatives. That is, they knew it was due to her nervousness. It was actually a nervous reaction that the body showed.
Another problem was that many of the people who came from solitary confinement carried, with themselves, a large number of pills given to them, boxes of pills. They also called them at night to take their pills. They usually took a lot of pills. These were psychiatric pills, especially for those who stayed in solitary confinement for a long time, such as falling asleep or not being able to sleep. Or they had severe anxiety and restlessness. Over time, their pills increased and they became confined to the psyche with many pills. I remember once when the prosecutor and the head of the prison came to the women's ward, I was a lawyer of the ward. In protest of the detention of prisoners in solitary confinement, I spoke to the head of the Detention/Correction Center and told him to give me a box of pills for a moment. I want to show it to the head of the prison. He handed me the box and I showed it to the head of the prison and told him that it was a catastrophe in solitary confinement and that people were entering the public with ten or fifteen psychiatric pills. In my opinion, this is part of that white torture. Why is there a situation in solitary confinement where a prisoner is forced to take uncoated pills (No Name) and does not know what these pills are for? What it consists of and what mental and psychological effects it can have on a person; one has to resort to these pills in order to be able to eat, sleep and even sit, to get rid of anxiety and restlessness; In my opinion, the use of these pills is part of the psychological torture and has very destructive effects on the mind and psyche of the prisoner.
Q: Most people who have experienced solitary confinement feel that these destructive psychological effects persist after they are released. There are even people who, after one or two years, still have sleep disorders, or when they leave their home environment and travel, they cannot sleep properly in the new environment. What is your personal experience? Were you able to follow the right path for treatment after your solitary confinement and after your release? Does the government provide medical facilities to citizens in solitary confinement to treat themselves? Is there a space for treating these disorders in Iran? Are such cases basically treatable or curable?
NM: I am talking specifically about people who have been in solitary confinement for a long time. Those who have been in solitary confinement, for several months or years, certainly, even if a person in solitary confinement resists and not broken down in solitary confinement and refusing to be interviewed, or confess to or accept a false accusation, the fact is that the white torture and detention in solitary confinement have detrimental effects for a long term. It puts a lot of pressure on the prisoner’s body, mind and spirit. Well, such people, considering that they either receive heavy sentences and enter public prisons and do not have the possibility of proper treatment, and they are not going to be treated properly, and they are not sent to the doctor, and they are not able to recover themselves, because they are transferred to prison again. Currently, the security conditions in the prison are very stressful, so it is not possible to receive treatment in public wards. But if some of them want to be released on bail, they are subject to court rulings or even interrogations continue, outside the prison. They are summoned to security agencies continuously. This means that the pressure from the individual cell does not go away at full length. Each of them thinks that they will return to solitary confinement, and this same return to solitary confinement creates a double psychological pressure and anxiety. This not only deprives him of the ability to heal what has happened to him in solitary confinement, but also adds to the anxiety and worries that in itself increases the stress. I usually see these discomforts and injuries in the people I spoke to. Some of them believe that they have suffered so much psychological damage in solitary confinement that they think that these injuries will accompany them for the rest of their lives. For example, waking up at odd times or falling asleep, irregularly. For example, when they are entering an enclosed environment, this space can be an elevator or a toilet or a bathroom. For them, these conditions are reminiscent of solitary cell conditions and cause them anxiety and distress. This increases the damage to the person, each time it is repeated. It is very difficult for those who have endured this torture to have access to counseling and treatment for the injuries caused by white torture. First of all, to create a culture for such an issue, which must be taken into account under these psychological pressures, the person should get treatment to recover. But first, there is not much of that culture. Secondly, it is not possible. Naturally, if the government realizes that there is a place to provide facilities and services for this type of solitary confinement for a victim, it will put more pressure for more collections. We still cannot provide such a possibility. I had often thought of it as a collection of doctors volunteering to help victims of torture. But we could not make that possible. (YET)
Q: Is it possible to protest against solitary confinement by filing a complaint? I know that you and a group of civil activists and former political prisoners recently filed a complaint with the judiciary against the detention of defendants in solitary confinement. Is it possible to file a complaint, both when a detainee is transferred from solitary confinement to a public ward and when he is released from prison, in order for the treatment process to proceed? Apart from the fact that the enablers and perpetrators of this matter must be brought to justice.
What happens is that when the victims of solitary confinement come to public wards and experience discomfort, with serious damage to their mind and body, they think of treatment or at least follow-up. In fact, in practice, the prison environment will prevent this, given that if it makes it possible for the individual to register the proceedings and the follow-ups and treatments, this itself is process of documentation against the security institutions and solitary confinement and torture, this process is going to be prevented. That is, a group of independent physicians do not have this freedom or the possibility. The prison doctors themselves are also under the control and supervision of the security apparatus. Some of these physicians enter Wards 209, 2A, 240 and 241. I have seen that when doctors enter security cells, security agents usually accompany them in many of these situations. For example, I remember that once I needed a doctor, the interrogator was next to the doctor above my head. Although the doctor above me was much worse than my interrogator. That is, his position/views were much tougher, and he had a much heavier attitude towards me.
Q: Did this issue occur in Evin Ward 209?
NM: Yes, it was in Ward 209. I remember that a doctor in a white uniform treated me so violently that my interrogator left the room. They put me on the floor and on the mosaic. Instead of the bed. And he even grabbed my hands from both sides and pushed them on me, the doctor threatened that if I did not allow him to give me this injection, he would chain me to the base of the bed and tie my legs too, so I would not be able to move, and he will be able to inject. So I want to say, what happens in solitary confinement is part of the same white torture that completes the circle of solitary confinement, interrogation, and medical treatment. Therefore, when a person is brought to a public ward, the medical staff and doctors of the prison and the process within which the prisoner's medical file is spent can be like a court case that has no positive judicial effect. That means, we do not have fair trials. Because the security institution is influential and keeps the judiciary in check, as an authority and that exerts its influence.
This also happens with healthcare. Whatever you send to any hospital, the assistant/prosecutor must give permission. How does the assistant judge give permission? There should definitely be an opinion/report from the security agency. Therefore, the opinion of the security institution is as effective in the treatment of medicine as it is in the judicial process of cases and during the proceedings, and it performs the same screenings and control. Therefore, it is not possible for this to happen properly in prisons, it may happen in form only/appearance . In my opinion, of course, even in forms is useful and should be registered. But to be able to do this after release is the fact that forensic medicine in the Islamic Republic of Iran is under the control of the judiciary and does not have independence. I do not have much hope for an institution that is under the supervision of an institution that is responsible for this situation (prisoner is under). For example, forensic medicine does not write a clear medical opinion regarding cases where a prisoner has been sent to a hospital from inside the prison and has decided to be sent to forensic medicine. For example, he says that you can keep this person in prison, but only if he is not stressed. Is the doctor practicing forensic medicine familiar with the concept of imprisonment? If he does not know that one of the characteristics of prison is anxiety, stress and prison conditions such as being away from family, illness and other problems and living under the supervision of a security and judicial institution, does he not know that one of the requirements of prison is one of the things that always Is associated with imprisonment, anxiety and stress? This is not an independent and medical opinion. In fact, it is an opinion that only removes responsibility from them. Or, for example, in the case of a person who, if kept in prison, this detention would lead to disability, for example, in the case of Ms. Raheleh Ahmadi. The hospital, which is under the supervision of the judiciary, wrote to her that if she was kept in prison, for medical reasons, it could lead to her paralysis. What does forensic medicine think about this? I am sorry to say that forensic medicine does not give an independent medical opinion on the issue of prisoners, especially political and ideological prisoners, and under the pressure of the security forces and the judiciary, we do not get an independent medical opinion from the Medical Commission. You also saw about Behnam Mahjoubi that even the opinion that came from the medical commission was ignored by the security and judicial institutions and led to Behnam Mahjoubi's death. Or in the current situation regarding Mr. Mohammad Nourizad, the opinion of the doctors in the hospitals that took Mr. Nourizad is that he should not be kept in prison. Has forensic medicine/legal /coroner given such a clear and conclusive opinion to the judiciary? Therefore, I would like to say that although I agree with you that these cases should definitely be registered, even if they are not investigated and the judiciary does not pay attention to them, in a sense that it is documented through by the tortured against the torturer that the judiciary and The security of the Islamic Republic of Iran is, and must one day must be held responsible, and this is an important historical issue. It is a historical document. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed. How successful it will be is not very promising. But at least, I think we can use it as a lever to put pressure on the security and judicial institutions or to enlighten/ bring awareness to public opinion. If we can't stop this process, we can at least control it to some extent.
Q: Are the psychological effects of solitary confinement on women and men different according to the conditions prevailing in the security cells in the Islamic Republic? Due to the treatment of women in solitary confinement. For example, the issue of what you wear or the issue of menstruation for women and its impact on the interrogation process. Sexual harassment during interrogation of the detainee or threat of disclosure of the detainee's private information by the interrogator.
NM: The solitary confinement is torture for every living being. Every living thing needs air. It needs sound. It needs the sun. When you take these from a living being, you disrupt everyday life and its existence when human social relations are limited. When they take away speech/sound, hearing, and opportunities from a being , and cut him/her off into isolation and emptiness, the reality is that they separate you from other humans and humanity. Thus, solitary confinement is torture for every human being. There is no doubt. Psychology also considers white torture to be one of the most horrific forms of torture. This torture targets and disrupts the human psyche. But the fact that there can be extra pressure on women in solitary confinement, in my opinion, both the interrogation system and the system of keeping women in solitary confinement enforces this double pressure/oppression for the detainee.
The fact that women in our society have always faced discrimination and repression is a lived experience of women in Iranian society. Especially in a religious/theocratic government and in a patriarchal system. Many of us have had these experiences of repression, humiliation, and harassment. But in a solitary cell, each of these is applied at multiples. Perhaps the humiliation of the body is the kind of humiliation we always witness. But in solitary confinement, this humiliation puts double pressure on women. For example, when they enter your personal files and question your personal relationships with it, or use it as a threat lever. That we will show these photos and videos to families, or that we distribute them in cyberspace and take away your prestige and character and tarnish your reputation. Or other interventions in women's private affairs, these put a double psychological burden on women, and many women do not tolerate these pressures and fear because of fear of their reputation and fear of what they do not want to be in public for any reason. So many give in to the interrogator and provide what the interrogator requests. For example, in connection with the virginity test that I have heard from two of my cellmates so far, both of which happened to belong to the Revolutionary Guards detention center. It really puts a lot of stress on them. Because they resisted, but when you are in solitary confinement, you have no lawyer and you cannot talk to anyone and you are in the cell helplessly, any of these pressures can overwhelm the woman. Or I remember a woman who was also religious. She was pressured to give an oral account of her relationship with the man she had befriended, and when she refused, she was told to be given a piece of paper and a pen to go to the cell and write these for interrogators. She cites this pressure as one of the pressures that had disturbed her sleep, concentration and nerves and put her under a lot of pressure. She said that they wanted me to write and that was very scary for me. If I had not written, the mistreatment of the interrogators would have increased, and I would not have been able to tolerate the conditions of the cell in addition to all this mistreatment of the interrogators. So I had a terrible mental breakdown that I could not decide what to do.
The fact is that in solitary confinement, even if the interrogator does not come to you, you have to be able to endure loneliness, having nobody, is what you compare talking to the interrogator for a long time. It is not easy for a person in solitary confinement to accept this. Therefore, you have to give in to the interrogator's request, which, if you do, is very frightening and fragile for a woman, and can lower the position of that woman in the continuation of interrogations that have nothing to do with this issue, and make the interrogator dominate that woman. These are the things that happen to women in the cell.
Thanks for the opportunity that you gave.