Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The Mirhady Lecture 2024: The Existence, Purpose, and Metaphor of Prisons in Iran and Around the World

A Slide of Golnar Nikpour's Book Cover
After a four-year hiatus, which was not out of choice, the Mirhady Lecture with its focus on Iranian studies was finally back on the map again last week. The previous one was on March 1, 2020, which was a handful of days before Covid 19 officially became a pandemic and when subsequent safety measures and restrictions came into effect worldwide. It is interesting to note that this year’s chosen theme and focus was on prisons as we have had globally - due to the pandemic -first-hand experience of being locked in and isolated from each other for a substantial amount of time.

It is also a moment to reflect upon the history and practices of incarceration, which despite the narrow focus on modern Iran in this lecture has much wider, global, historical, social, and political repercussions, which were partly addressed and which I shall add to and expand upon at end of this post.

The invited speaker was Dr. Golnar Nikpour and her recently published first book The Incarcerated Modern Prisons and Public Life in Iran published by Stanford University Press. As a historian, she defined “modern” in this context as starting from the 18th century to the present, which were partitioned into three separate breaking points: the Qajar period, the Pahlavi reign from 1925 to 1979, and then, the subsequent Islamic state right after the ‘79 revolution in Iran up to the current day.

Interestingly, forced confinement was rare during most of the Qajar period. There were cases and occasions of corporal punishment on display, such as the public whipping of the soles of the feet but there was no systematic punishment via incarceration. In fact, there were no prisons to speak of at the time; they existed only in a makeshift form and fashion to keep and house criminals for a certain amount of time.

Nonetheless, this was about to change starting from 1910 due to growing lawlessness in the region. There was a decisive shift with a more systematic approach as uniforms were introduced in the 1910s and 20s and the concept and institution of the modern prison system starting to catch on and take hold.

This was what Golnar called the “public life of the prison” during which Iranians had to learn how to adjust and navigate around not getting arrested alongside ideas of good citizenship as opposed to more clear-cut criminal acts and behaviors of previous times. A new awareness of one’s own duties toward others and the nation began taking shape in the consciousness of its people with the introduction of the added punishment of being isolated and locked away from others and losing one’s liberty and freedom of movement due to transgressing and breaking the established codes, rules, and laws.

This was expanded upon by the Pahlavi period and different reasons and motivations were added to the fray. The immediate repercussion was that inmates increased from mere dozens to tens of thousands during that reign. Ironically, the post-revolutionary Islamic period, which had criticized the previous administration on its restrictive and inhumane prison system, rose and expanded to a quarter million, if not more, inmates.

The emergence of the modern prison system had various consequences on daily life. To begin with, despite the appearance and promises, justice was not necessarily enforced in a uniform and fair and balanced way. As there was not enough independent democratic oversight, it led to corruption and abuses, and not just an increase in corporal punishment but also the implementation of torture and forced confessions.

This changed the whole dynamic regarding power, citizenship, and incarceration. It also had effects on the psyche of its people around notions of freedom and unfreedom, the finer details and print between lawfulness and lawlessness as well as the distinction between what constituted good citizenship versus a more simplistic view of being a bad criminal.

Image of speaker with a slide of Iranian queen

That said, the purported intentions were not merely to punish but rather to reform and even train the ones who had allegedly swayed from the “good path.” While prisons were previously seen and referred to as places of council, during the Pahlavi period, it had a more therapeutic outlook, namely, to cure if not purify people from their criminal tendencies and to turn them into good citizens. Imprisonment was not presented as a punitive measure, but the inmate was treated as a patient and the prison was thought to provide the necessary albeit mandatory and enforced cure.

Yet, politics was always going to play a role and so there were political prisoners as opposed to ordinary or more common ones, i.e. those who had engaged in infractions ranging from minor to more serious crimes. Yet, political prisoners would always be a sticky point especially in less democratically inclined nations, where these inmates would be presented, represented, and framed as a national security threat or a danger to the public.

The lines would not be as clearly defined. Incidentally, many political dissenters ended up not only meeting each other in these confined spaces but they also created networks and learned from each other. In fact, Bozorg Alavi, a communist sympathizer, explained how “in prison, one read in earnest” and due to less distractions of daily life, preoccupations, or entertainment, their focus was more on learning and by extension to further their respective causes.

Alavi touted his educational achievements because it was thanks to prisons that he had learned Russian and English, which were most useful and helpful for his political aims and aspirations. Moreover, it was not uncommon to write and even publish clandestinely in prison and to even create political parties in confined and concentrated places like those.

Ironically, (note that history as well as politics tend to be filled with it), the prison system became the rallying cry of the revolution itself and many of them had had first-hand experience of being imprisoned. That did not, however, stop the new administration from creating an elaborate, even more restrictive, and punitive system themselves. Even so, the Islamic government may not have defined prisons as therapeutic, yet they considered them to be “virtue training schools,” where inmates were supposedly taught necessary life and vocational skills in addition to morality and Islamic values.

This is not too far off from the modern political system on a global scale. Even the term penitentiary involves a certain aspect of penitence, of having the criminal repent their sins and wrongdoing and upon release to be cured or reformed from doing evil. This is the blueprint or foundational structure of the prison system because it tends to see itself as a place of reform and rehabilitation. In some cases, therapy is an added element in addition to the establishment, support, and maintenance of law and order both within and outside of the prison walls.

It is something that both pre- and postrevolutionary periods have in common. The difference would lie in its focus, whereas the previous would be more secular, the other would be decidedly Islamic in nature and outlook. Nonetheless, the other aims of the modern prison system exist equally in various parts of the world, that is, to make society safer by incarcerating dangerous repeat offenders and keeping them off the streets for the benefit of the populace and society.

This becomes arbitrary when there is a lack of independent and institutional oversight with a less clearly defined and designated judiciary system. There is also both an overlap as well as a distinction between the role and purpose of prisons and mental asylums or psychiatric facilities. Yet, sick people, whether in the confines of a prison system or any other type of facility, ought to be treated humanely before there could be any talk of a potential cure.

Also, the prison system should not purposely aim to lock up troubled, troublesome, or troublemaking populations. Whether it is a social or political matter or a case of addiction and substance abuse, there need to be appropriate and distinct categories and measures applied to each case and situation.

In the current example of Iran, not only has the prison population exploded for a wide range of alleged misdemeanors and crimes but there is also more surveillance of its people. Ankle monitors are other forms of punishment and restrictions of movement that are being practiced and this includes people that are not officially counted as part of the prison system as they are not kept or housed within its compounds and premises.

There is, moreover, the use of biometric technology as well as traffic and police cameras to enforce rules established and enforced by the morality police for what are generally not considered offenses in other parts of the world. Technology has become part of a system that can in different ways lead to other types of control and punishment, which are not necessarily physical in nature.

The lecture by Golnar was quite insightful and thought-provoking as you can attest for yourself and as exemplified in the summary here. I found it most interesting that she kept referring to her book as a “book project” even though it has been already published. But I would like to take the opportunity to add some more thoughts to this topic of discussion and not just look at prisons as premises or means of enforcing and propagating ideas and ideology but also see it as a metaphor for our current socially and politically volatile times.

Prisons are not just social in nature but also in our imagination. Although Golnar briefly referred to it, her point of view was more about being controlled by others or government and elite forces, often perceived, designated, and judged as evil, malignant, and nefarious entities with a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda.

Yet there is a blind spot. By firmly believing and standing by her own point of view and interpretation of events and circumstances, she may be missing and overlooking important clues and opportunities. It is of course a tendency that people not only want to be right but to convince others that this is indeed so. It is not just her specifically I am referring to but also a wider culture around her that supports, encourages, and applauds her ideology, such as the institution of Simon Fraser itself.

Over the years, I have been to dozens of talks and lectures, and they claim and tout themselves in offering open dialogue as well as diversity. Yet with one notable albeit unintended yet utterly hilarious exception (I’d be glad to provide more details on this “colonial oversight” in the comment section should there be any interest), every single talk and lecture has been minor variations of a common theme and refrain. There is no element of surprise and no insight that does not perfectly if not artificially align with the established doctrine.

Those are taken as true undisputable and untouchable facts with no pause for reflection or allowance for any other points of views or observations that even slightly diverge from this “absolute truth.” This is hardly a case of open dialogue because it lacks and even prohibits a priori any type of openness or discussions.

Although there can be moments of insight and the furthering of education and knowledge, this is all framed within such an obvious and narrow agenda in mind that it can become rather counterproductive. An educational system ought to teach us how to think, not what to think, and sadly, our minds are not only being taken hostage here, but they are imprisoned as well as force fed, not unlike the system they tend to point fingers at.

Finally, prisons are not just places where movements are restricted, but the exact opposite can be the case where the place itself is off limits, so you are not able to go or move there at the peril of your own freedom and life while at the same time being away from it is a form of prison and punishment as it causes tremendous pain and suffering.

In the context of Iran, this applies to those who have sought political asylum abroad and may not be able to return to their homeland at risk of being punished, imprisoned, or worse. My father was one of those people who had deserted his homeland, sacrificing everything in the process, his home, his job and career, his family, and friends to save those who mattered most to him, us, his children.

Although we lived in different parts of the world, I do not think that he ever was at home or felt accepted. In Germany, that was certainly not the case, as we were unfortunately designated and branded as Ausländer (foreigners) despite living there for more than a decade and even if, as in my case, I did not have an accent, it was our looks that gave away that we did not belong.

In my own case, not having a home has been its own joy and cross. On one hand, it means that I am home wherever I feel at home and wherever my heart may be at a given moment, yet it also means that I have no specific home to speak of, no place to rest my weary head or be fully seen and accepted as who I am.

In ancient Greece, Socrates was first imprisoned but then he was given a choice, to either leave his home and live in exile or drink a cup of hemlock. He chose the bitter cup of poison because he could not imagine being away from his native home and country. He would rather die in a place where he was not free than be free in a place that was not his home.