No water, no soap and crowded cells: COVID-19 fears spark riots in Iran’s prisons

Images circulating on social media in Iran show riots and prison breaks at prisons in Tabriz (left), Ahvaz (centre) and Saqqez (right).
Images circulating on social media in Iran show riots and prison breaks at prisons in Tabriz (left), Ahvaz (centre) and Saqqez (right).

Despite the announcement that it has temporarily released more than 100,000 prisoners to stem coronavirus infections, Iran has seen riots in at least 10 prisons in the last three weeks. Prison sources told the France 24 Observers of lack of basic hygiene measures like soap and water, and anger among inmates unable to afford high bail prices.

Official state media have reported riots at numerous prisons, noting one death - in Khorramabad in western Lorestan province on March 19 - and a total of 97 escapes.

But human rights activists say dozens of prisoners have died in coronavirus-related rioting. A photomontage posted on an Iranian activist website April 3 listed the names of 10 prisoners said to have died in the rioting, along with their photos, and in some cases photographs of their funerals. All but one of the 10 were said to have died in rioting March 30-31 at two prisons in the city of Ahvaz, in southwestern Khuzestan province. While the province’s police chief told the media March 31 that no prisoners had died, a prison source told the France 24 Observers that families counted 38 body bags from the two prisons at a city morgue.

Iran’s judiciary had announced March 3 it was temporarily releasing tens of thousands of prisoners in a bid to stem transmissions of the virus in prison. On March 27, Asghar Jahangir, head of Iran’s Prisons Organization, said more than 100,000 prisoners had been granted furloughs, around 40% of Iran’s estimated 240,000 prisoners.

The prison source told the Observers that only a handful of prisoners at the two Ahvaz prisons had been granted furloughs, because most could not afford the high bail amounts.

Iran April 6 reported a total of 60,500 coronavirus cases, and 3,739 deaths. While no official death toll has been announced inside prisons, activists say at least 10 inmates have died of the virus.

READ MORE: Authorities in Iran 'hiding' COVID-19 deaths by listing other causes on death reports

This video circulating on social media in Iran shows a riot at a prison in Tabriz on March 26. A voice is heard saying: “In this video you can see security forces on the roof of Tabriz prison and inmates in the yard. We can hear gunshots as well.”

Riots erupt in at least 10 Iranian prisons

The first riot took place on March 19 in Parsilon prison in Khorramabad, capital of Lorestan province. According to state media, at least 23 prisoners, mostly low-level drug dealers, escaped because they were afraid of getting infected by the coronavirus. One inmate was reportedly shot dead by guards.

In this video we can hear gunshots: “They are shooting at them in the yard, it’s blank I think. Inmates riot in the prison of Aligoudarz. Poor guys are afraid of corona” filmed on March 20.

Iranian state media reported coronavirus-related riots in at least 10 prisons across Iran between March 19 and March 31

Local media reported a major prison break on March 27 in Saqqez, in western Kurdistan province, with 74 inmates said to have fled because of conditions at the prison’s medical center. Videos published on social media show inmates running in all directions, some trying to stop passing cars.

In this CCTV video published on March 23 on Telegram, inmates are seen running after escaping from a prison in Saqqez. 

These photos posted on an Iranian activist website on April 3 shows the photos of 8 inmates said to have died during coronavirus-related prison violence. Among them: Mohammad Tamouli, 25, said to have died at Sepidar prison in Ahvaz, and Danial Zeynolabedini, 19, at Mahabad prison.

No water, no soap and overcrowded cells

But activists say the worst violence happened on March 30 and 31 in the two prisons in Ahvaz, Sepidar and Sheiban. "Ahmad" (not his real name) was a former long-term inmate at Sepidar Prison. Released last year, he kept in touch with many inmates and their families, and was able to contact inmates in both Sepidar and Sheiban prisons during the rioting.

This video posted on March 31 shows smoke rising from Sheiban prison in Ahvaz. Our Observer, a former prisoner, said inmates set their blankets on fire as a protest against sanitary conditions.


I was in touch with friends at Sepidar prison until they cut communications at midnight on March 31. At least three people were suspected of having coronavirus in Sepidar, and prisoners in Sheiban said at least one inmate there had died of the virus.

The first advice anyone gives about the coronavirus is to wash your hands. But it’s not possible to do that in the prisons in Ahvaz. The hygiene situation in both prisons is horrible, because of lack of infrastructure and a general lack of water in Khuzestan Province. Prisoners sometimes go for days without water.

In this video, posted on Telegram on March 27, the narrator says, “Hello, this is Ghezel Hesar prison [a prison in Tehran]. So far two or three people have died of the coronavirus here. They’re doing nothing about it! They don’t care! They’ve kept us in the yard since this morning. All countries are giving furloughs to their prisoners except for this damn country.”


The authorities at Sepidar cut soap rations last year, saying they didn’t have the funds. We had to buy our soap from the prison store. And lots of people don’t have the money. And right now it’s Nowruz, the Persian New Year, so the prison stores are closed. Even people who have money cannot buy soap.

This video, posted on Telegram on March 30, has a caption saying: “Right now at Sepidar prison [in Ahvaz] all the inmates ran away. They fired tear gas.”


The other advice people give most for avoiding COVID-19 is social distancing. But that’s not possible either because both the prisons in Ahvaz are overcrowded. They were built for 2,000 inmates, but there are about 4,000 people at Sepidar and 5,000 in Sheiban. There are sometimes 20 people in a single cell. Many people have to sleep on the floor.

In Sepidar prison, there is one quarantine room, and it’s generally used for punishment not medical quarantine. Last year one inmate came back from the quarantine room with tuberculosis.

“Some of the bodies were burned beyond recognition”

Ahmad says the riots were sparked by frustration about the furloughs.


People in both prisons asked for furloughs, which is what they were  promised by the government. Only a dozen prisoners or so got furloughs though. Prison management denied many of the prisoners’ requests, either saying they had committed “dangerous” crimes, or, for most of them, because they couldn’t provide the bail. If some prisoners can’t afford to buy soap, how can they provide 4 or 10 billion tomans [250,000–625,000 €] for bail?

So people decide to protest. They burned anything they could find, like blankets, and took control of some guards' posts. But they could not get farther than that. They were caught between fires on one side and prison guards with guns on the other.

I spoke to families who went to identify bodies from the two prisons at a morgue in the city. They counted 38 body bags, 18 of them marked as coming from Sepidar prison, 20 from Sheiban. They said some of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.

This video posted on Twitter on April 5 has a caption saying it shows the funeral of a prisoner named Qasem Mokhtary who died in Sheiban prison in Ahvaz.


We are worried about the safety of our friends in these prisons. The families haven’t had any news since the prisons were cut off on March 31. No phone calls, no visits, no information. They don’t know if their loved ones died or escaped. When families gathered outside the prison to try to find out what was going on, they got tear gas and beatings instead of answers.

This video posted on Telegram March 31 shows inmates’ families gathering outside Sepidar prison in Ahvaz while a riot takes place inside.

This video, also posted on Twitter March 31, shows families near Sheiban, another prison in Ahvaz.

Article by: Ershad ALIJANI