The Incarcerated Modern
Prisons and Public Life in Iran
Golnar Nikpour




“Prison? Who understands what this word really means? For most people, this word is a mute concept. But you must look just one time behind the iron bars to dried and cracked lips, to bruised noses and bony faces, to begin to guess or at least try to guess what this word really signifies.”


Scrap Papers from Prison

PRISONS IN IRAN HAVE AN UNHAPPY GLOBAL REPUTATION. EVEN those onlookers with only cursory knowledge of Iranian politics or history have heard troubling accounts of arbitrary arrests and torture in today’s Islamic Republic. In recent years, international news has been rife with stories of the hunger strikes of imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh,1 the opaque judicial processes endured by British national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe,2 the arrest and execution of dissident pro wrestler Navid Afkari,3 and numerous other high-profile cases of Iranians who have run afoul of their government and found themselves incarcerated or even executed for their political views or actions. Most recently, amid a mass uprising that began in September 2022, headlines have announced the arrests of tens of thousands of protesters. This grim knowledge of incarceration in Iran is underscored by the widespread circulation of popular English-language texts with titles like My Prison, My Home and Prisoner of Tehran that explicitly use the metaphor of the prison to describe life in the Islamic Republic4 and by the work of global human rights organizations, which routinely remind us that in Iran “torture and other ill-treatment of detainees . . . [is] committed with impunity.”5 From the first months after the 1979 revolution in Iran, exiled opposition groups have been among the most forceful in their condemnations of Islamic Republic prisons, describing these sites as places “where human dignity and animal savagery come face to face.”6 For their part, Iranian expatriates—with sometimes-competing political worldviews, agendas, and funding streams—have worked to publicize the carceral violence of the Iranian government around the world, publishing prison memoirs,7 producing scholarship,8 engaging in letter-writing campaigns,9 and founding organizations in defense of incarcerated Iranian activists. Unsurprisingly, a vast network of sometimes strange bedfellows—including international human rights organizations and activists, scholars and journalists, Iranian diaspora organizations and parties, international politicians of differing political stripes, artists and celebrities, and a hostile US government—have focused on Iran’s carceral record to name and shame the Iranian government, push for the release of detained Iranians, and, in many cases, advocate against the Islamic Republic’s continued existence altogether.

Given this blood-soaked reputation, it might surprise some to learn that the Islamic Republic of Iran—that is, Iran’s post-1979 government—has also long used Iran’s prisons as proof of its moral and political legitimacy. Of course, the story that Iran’s contemporary government promotes regarding Iranian prisons is different from the one told by its myriad critics. For the Islamic Republic, the 1979 revolution represented an unequivocal break with the brutality of the Pahlavi monarchy led by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and particularly with the violence and cruelty of the former shah’s prisons and interrogation centers. Reminding Iranians of the spectacular violence of Iran’s prerevolutionary prisons has long been a cottage industry for the post-1979 Iranian state and high-ranking officials in the government, just as downplaying the Islamic Republic’s own record of carceral violence is those same officials’ modus operandi. Institutions affiliated with the cultural wing of the Islamic Republic have sponsored numerous publications on the prisons and interrogation centers of the fallen monarchy, focusing the narrative on the incarceration and torture of clerical and Islamist prisoners. Major state-sponsored research institutes and initiatives, including those affiliated with the Organization for Islamic Propaganda (Sazman-e tabliqat-e eslami), publish regularly on the topic of torture in monarchic Iran, as well as on torture and political imprisonment in countries toward which the Islamic Republic is politically hostile, such as Israel.10 Members of the Islamic Republic elite who spent time in the prisons of the prerevolutionary Pahlavi monarchy continue to routinely trade in tales of their prerevolutionary detention and torture. The carceral misdeeds of the erstwhile monarchy are so important to the narrative that the Islamic Republic tells about its own moral legitimacy that Leader Ali Khamenei himself devotes significant space on his official website to recounting his experiences of torture in the shah’s prisons.11 And, in what is perhaps the most physically conspicuous example of this pattern, the Islamic Republic has also turned some notorious prisons and interrogation centers first opened during the prerevolutionary era into museums, repurposing institutional spaces built by the fallen monarchy to affirm the government’s official narrative of prerevolutionary violence, revolutionary struggle and martyrdom (particularly among revolutionary clerics), and postrevolutionary freedom.

Despite the present-day struggle over Iran’s carceral record and the importance of the 1979 revolution and its aftermath to the story of incarceration in Iran, the country’s modern prison system has its origins in the first decades of the twentieth century. And despite the urgent global resonance of today’s political debates on the treatment of Iranian prisoners, political movements challenging Iranian prison violence and torture also originate in this earlier era. It is this making and establishing of the modern carceral state in Iran as well as concomitant transformations in Iranian social worlds and political vocabularies with which this book is centrally concerned. After establishing Pahlavi rule in 1925, long before these contemporary contestations over Iran’s prisons, the Pahlavi government established Iran’s modern prison system as part of its massive state-building and legal centralization efforts.12 Just as the Pahlavi government centralized Iran’s legal edifice in the late 1920s and early 1930s, codifying an unprecedented and expansive secular penal and criminal legal code, the early Pahlavi state planned for tens of new prisons. The nascent Pahlavi elite saw these new prisons as a solution rather than a problem and a necessary step in the project of transforming Iran into a civilized modern nation-state capable of taking its rightful and sovereign place on the global stage. Those affiliated with the Pahlavi state were proud of their prisons, which they claimed would help end an era of arbitrary despotism and colonial encroachment and usher in a new era of humane and modern punishments. They boasted that these new prisons would end the violence and torture they believed endemic to a “lawless” pre-Pahlavi era and would be capable of finally treating all prisoners equally regardless of their background. Later, Pahlavi statesman Ahmad Hooman, who over his career held numerous posts including deputy prime minister, acting minister of court, and president of the Iranian Bar Association, declared that under Reza Shah—the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty—Iran had finally built modern prisons that would hold prisoners “without any sort of class distinctions.”13 Members of the Pahlavi elite claimed that this “progressive” and “modern” institution—designed and built with input from criminologists and law enforcement specialists from Europe and the United States—could reform criminals into productive citizens and might even end crime altogether.

The foremost of these new modern prisons was central Tehran’s Qasr Prison. Qasr’s history is emblematic of the changes wrought by the legal and carceral transformations of the last century in Iran. Qasr Prison first opened in 1929 on the grounds of a former Qajar castle and royal gardens and closed its doors to prisoners in 2005 before reopening as a museum and public park in 2008, after over a quarter century of use under the Islamic Republic (figs. 1 and 2).14 An institution to which this book will return several times, Qasr is a foundational if understudied site of Iranian political modernity. Even before the opening of the prison, when the lands were still largely in their former state as Qajar royal gardens, the grounds around Qasr were consecrated in the project of Pahlavi state nationalism. In 1928, when Iran’s first radio masts and towers were built on Qasr’s grounds just three years after the Pahlavi monarchy was declared, Reza Shah wrote his hopes for the rest of his reign and for Iran on a piece of paper and buried it in a tin container on-site.15 A few months later, that site of nationalized hope and kingly aspiration would open its doors to prisoners as twentieth-century Iran’s most expansive carceral space. The Pahlavi era would crash to an end just a few decades later with the 1979 revolutionary movement that eventually brought the Islamic Republic to power. During those electric months, revolutionaries and protesters targeted the shah’s prisons, Qasr included, as a major recipient of their fury, forcing the release of political prisoners in an effort to materialize their demands for a radically different world.16 Today, Qasr has again been recast as a museum, and while its walls continue to bear the scars of nearly a century of incarcerated Iranians of all kinds, including those imprisoned by the Islamic Republic, the official story told on its curated placards and signs tells only a partial tale. This book aims to tell a different story.

FIGURE 1. Qasr Prison Museum. Source: Photograph by Golnar Nikpour, 2014

FIGURE 2. Qasr Prison Museum. Source: Photograph by Golnar Nikpour, 2014


This book examines key moments in the establishment of the modern prison system in Iran in the twentieth century, the resulting incarceration of millions of Iranians, and some of the responses among both Iranians and non-Iranians to those prisons. I argue that the making of the modern prison system has led to an elemental and enduring transformation in Iranian life. I further argue that this transformation did not happen in isolation but rather was part of a worldwide trend promoting and entrenching carceral solutions—surveillance, policing, and mass punishment and imprisonment—to a wide host of social issues. It is difficult to overstate the wholesale changes that the modern carceral system has brought to Iran.17 For most of Iran’s long pre-twentieth-century history, forced confinement was a relative rarity, and long periods of incarceration were practically unheard of. When someone did find themselves forced into confinement, it was typically for short periods while awaiting punishment. To put it simply, the types and lengths of punishments handed out in modern and contemporary Iran would have been largely unthinkable in the region in earlier eras. Even in the first years of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s rule in the 1920s, after some piecemeal legal and carceral reforms had already taken place, prisoners in the capital city of Tehran numbered only a few hundred.18

The number of prisoners across Iran has increased steadily in the past century, including another vast leap after the revolution, culminating in this current era of mass criminalization and incarceration. According to Asghar Jahangir, the former head of the Islamic Republic’s Organization of Prisons and National Security Measures (Sazman-e zendanha va eghdamat-e taʾmini va tarbiyati-e keshvar; hereafter the Prisons Organization), there are now at least a quarter of a million prisoners in 268 official prisons.19 (This number, as high as it is, doesn’t account for protesters jailed during the current antigovernment uprising, nor does it perfectly account for everyone imprisoned before the uprising, as I will explain in later chapters.) This book traces this extraordinary transformation and expansion. Yet the story I tell here is not simply one of Iranian institution- or nation-building, despite the umbilical relationship between Iran’s modern prisons and the history of Iran as a modern nation-state. Rather, I focus on what I call the “public life” of the modern prison. I chart the history of modern surveillance, punishment, and incarceration—that constellation of techniques and institutions of modern power foundational to the carceral state20—and argue that far from simply being a site of private suffering, the modern Iranian carceral system emerged as and remains a generative public locus for questions of citizenship, rights, and political belonging and unbelonging.

Some further explanation on what I mean by the public life of the prison is in order. I use this phrase in two linked senses, the first of which refers to the new public conversations that questions of law, punishment, justice, and incarceration elicited in Iran. The central topics of this book—prisons and punishment in Iran—have been of great significance to Iranians themselves. Seemingly as soon as plans for new modern prisons in Iran were formulated in the early twentieth century, Iranians were talking about these prisons, as well as the new forms of mass surveillance and policing that came along with them. After legal and carceral centralization, Iranians had to learn en masse how not to get arrested and incarcerated and what to do if they were. Like people all over the world, many Iranians did this through new popular genres such as prison memoirs, academic criminology and penology, newspaper accounts of crime and punishment, and, of course, through face-to-face interactions with Iranian institutions of policing, surveillance, and incarceration.

The modern prison system has also proven foundational for Iranian political and intellectual movements. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Iranians have written on, organized their political activism around, and produced copious art and literature contemplating the relationship between power, citizenship, modernity, and incarceration. From the earliest years of carceral centralization, dissident political parties were formed in Iranian prisons, and jail overcrowding—and the apparent explosion in criminality this overcrowding seemed to indicate—would become a matter of widespread public concern. It was in the aforementioned Qasr Prison that a small group of intellectuals lay the groundwork for the only mass-based party in the history of modern Iran, the communist Tudeh (Masses) Party. One of the party’s founding members, novelist Bozorg Alavi, later claimed, “Prison, for us, was truly a school. We learned many things there. Not only about social and political matters, but also . . . well, what didn’t we learn? For example, I learned Russian in prison. I learned English in prison. In prison . . . one read in earnest.”21 In other words, prison was the space in which Alavi and his comrades fully committed to their political lives. This experience is not limited to the Tudeh Party. From the prison communiqués of the Islamist Fadaian-e Islam party in the 1950s written on behalf of its imprisoned leader, Navab Safabi,22 to the prison writings and paintings of leftist guerrillas like Bizhan Jazani in the 1970s23 to digital prison mapping projects organized by formerly incarcerated dissidents in the contemporary Islamic Republic,24 virtually every important modern Iranian political movement has produced work from and about prison. That these movements have theorized liberation from the context of modern confinement is, I argue, reflective of the modern prison’s public life.

Yet the public life of the prison does not encompass simply that which dissident Iranians have said or thought in response to modern incarceration. Carceral practices (that is, linked systems of surveillance, policing, punishment, and incarceration) have transformed all Iranian social worlds and public life, not just those of the most politically engaged. My argument is not merely that modern carcerality produced new public cultures in Iran—though of course it did—but rather that modern forms of incarceration have shaped the very notion of the public and of membership in that public. This is the second sense in which I theorize the public life of the prison. Throughout this book I argue that in drawing, redrawing, and policing the line between the “bad criminal” and the “good citizen,” carceral techniques of the modern state have broadly shaped Iranian notions of citizenship, freedom, and nationalized inclusion (and exclusion). Labeling its expansion of prisons and prison factories “social work,” for instance, the mid-twentieth-century Pahlavi state argued that expanded prisons were necessary to “train and educate” deviant Iranians so that they could “live nobly” as productive citizens in a progressive modern society; their ability to function as citizens was predicated on the expansion of the carceral state.25 Pahlavi officials also touted the rehabilitative capacity of their new prisons, claiming that these prisons would help transform social deviance into social productivity. The names of Iran’s carceral sites were changed in the 1960s to reflect this rehabilitative impulse; the Central Prison for Men and Women (Zendan-e markazi-ye mardan va zanan) was changed to Penitentiary (or place of repentance) for Men and Women (Nedamatgah-e mardan va zanan), while some prisons stopped using the word prison (zendan) altogether and instead called themselves Place of Counsel (Andarzgah).26 This euphemistic sleight of hand mirrored the widespread adoption across the global south of the “penitentiary” model of mass imprisonment, in which “penitent” prisoners would learn the error of their ways, along the lines first imagined by Euro/American penal reform movements.27 This pedagogical project has continued, albeit in different ideological dressing, in today’s Islamic Republic. Referring to prisons as “virtue training schools” (amuzeshgah-e nikiha), the Islamic Republic has promoted its prisons as necessary spaces in the transformation of antisocial elements into ethical modern Islamic citizens.28 In other words, the public life of the prison also refers to the way that carceral practices and institutions have worked to shape modern Iranian ideas and norms of national belonging, social deviance, healthy citizenship, and even Islamic ethics.

The Incarcerated Modern charts Iran’s transformation from a decentralized empire with few incarcerated persons in the early twentieth century into a modern nation-state with a vast prison network today. How and why did this transformation happen? How did Iranians come to understand their increasingly surveilled and punished social worlds, and how have subsequent Iranian governments touted the benefits of their prisons? What political movements have emerged in the context of prisons or were organized against carceral policies? What sorts of solidarities have these movements demanded? Finally, what does Iran’s penal history tell us about the expansion of prisons across the globe? Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as the number of detainees in Iran’s prisons, jails, and detention centers has exponentially increased, members of both the Pahlavi and Islamic Republic governments have, despite their political differences and against mounting evidence to the contrary, routinely promised that carceral methods would render Iranian citizens safer by simultaneously sequestering and “reforming” criminals into productive and moral citizens.

The wholesale shifts I outline above have been marked by a turn toward what I—borrowing from the recent tradition of critical prison studies—call the “carceral imagination,” or a way of seeing the world in which the monitoring, policing, and incarceration of large numbers of people is normalized and viewed as inherent to the project of modernity. The Incarcerated Modern analyzes the methods by which mass criminalization and mass carceralization came to be seen in Iran as obvious and necessary responses to a wide host of social issues and a needed step toward placing Iran among the “progressive” and “civilized” nations of the world. I argue that Iran’s new modern prisons, meant to showcase Iran’s arrival on the global stage during the early Pahlavi era, were integral to this project of state nationalism and centralizing sovereignty. Throughout the book, I outline the processes through which the modern Iranian carceral system took root, showing that even as Iran has undergone profound political upheavals at the highest levels—the 1921 coup that brought Reza Khan to power (he would be crowned Reza Shah in 1925), the 1941 Allied invasion that brought his son Mohammad Reza Shah to power, the 1953 coup that kept the latter on the throne, and the 1979 revolution that toppled his rule in favor of an Islamic Republic—the carceral institutions, imaginaries, and publics inaugurated at the turn of the century have not only remained in place but also expanded in size and scope.


Although in the main The Incarcerated Modern is a history of carcerality in Iran, it also argues that the history of modern prisons is foundationally global. Throughout the book, I show that modern carcerality is today a truly world-spanning phenomenon. This means that the history of the prison cannot simply be studied from Euro/American imperial centers, nor can modern prisons such as those found in Iran be treated as peripheral or exceptional to the story. The architectures, economies, and techniques of modern punishment—as well as peoples’ responses to modern punishment—are transnational and linked. As I will show, even places imagined to be politically opposed, such as the contemporary Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, are in fact in many cases today operating from the same carceral blueprints. Throughout the book, I dwell in the previously undiscovered connections between places not typically thought of together—for example, Mashhad, Iran, and Marion, Illinois. Several prisons in the contemporary Islamic Republic, including two maximum-security prisons in Shiraz and Mashhad, were built in the 1960s from blueprints of USP Marion in Illinois, now a part of the US federal supermax system. USP Marion, with its novel experiments in solitary confinement as well as “group therapy” sessions, was built virtually at the same time as its Iranian counterparts as both penal systems experimented with confining and controlling “trouble” populations. These same blueprints were also used for prisons from Israel to New Zealand, revealing the global scope of these carceral logics and architectures and undercutting exceptionalist and Orientalist arguments that would claim that the Islamic Republic’s legal and juridical system has a singularly sharia-based pedigree unlike that found anywhere else in the modern world. Without a transnational approach in addressing the question at hand—that is, how and why did the modern prison take root in Iran?—links like this disappear into the historical ether.

To situate Iran’s prison history in a broader global framework does not mean to erase its historical specificity but rather to better locate and understand that specificity. A brief example might help better situate this dialectic between the local and the global in Iran’s prisons. In the contemporary Islamic Republic, the government has increasingly used new and globally popular technologies such as ankle monitors and biometric surveillance—a fact that links surveillance in today’s Iran to cutting-edge surveillance and punishment technologies the world over. Yet in Iran this new tech is often used in novel ways particular to the needs of a modern authoritarian Islamic government. In early 2020, the Tehran Morality Police—the same police force responsible for the arrest and eventual death of Jina Mahsa Amini, the young Kurdish Iranian woman whose death launched an uprising in 2022—began using traffic cameras to not only issue tickets for traffic violations but to also send text message summonses to women for alleged hijab violations. Those who didn’t respond to the texts and those who were issued repeat summonses were told that they were in danger of having their cars impounded.29 This new policy portended the further expansion of similar surveillance tech into the world of “morality” policing. Amid the current uprising, in which the country’s hijab laws have been a central recipient of protester fury, law enforcement and judicial officials have ominously promised an escalation in the use of these new technologies in policing issues they see as critical for proper Islamic morality, particularly hijab. The government’s specific investment in molding what it views as proper Islamic citizens, then, is reliant on new carceral technologies that are used to surveil, police, and punish behavior all over the world.30

It is not only carceral technologies and geographies that are global. Throughout this book, I also examine the transnational solidarities forged by political movements of varying stripes—leftist, Islamist, liberal, nationalist, human rights–seeking, and more—in the face of increased political surveillance, incarceration, and torture throughout the twentieth and now into the twenty-first century in Iran. As early as the 1910s and 1920s, leftist prisoners were linking their struggles to those of imprisoned comrades around the world. For instance, Armenian-Iranian Communist Party member Ardeshir Avanessian was heartened to find “freedom for comrade Béla Kun” scrawled on the walls of his 1920s prison cell, a gesture of solidarity with the imprisoned Hungarian communist leader.31 In the 1960s, European intellectual luminaries including Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre advocated on behalf of Iranian political prisoners using the then-nascent language of human rights, and revolutionary Iranian prisoners, Islamist and Marxist-Leninist alike, linked their own struggles to political movements from Algeria to Vietnam to Palestine. Today, transnational prisoner solidarities remain a critical component in the politics of incarceration in Iran. Angela Davis, one of the founding theorists of the global movement to abolish prisons and among the most well-known revolutionary political prisoners of the twentieth century, wrote in 2020:

As a longtime political activist in the US, my own trajectory has been deeply influenced by progressive and radical resistance in Iran. . . . As a scholar whose research interests revolve around the emergence and evolution of the prison industrial complex and the central role of structural racism, and as an activist who has helped to organize numerous actions and campaigns over the years asserting the human rights of prisoners, I count myself among those who are especially concerned about the politics of the proliferation of prisons under the Islamic Republic of Iran.32

Davis’s solidarity is a moving example of the long-standing links global prison activists have made with Iranian dissident movements. The famed Black revolutionary and intellectual also advocated on behalf of incarcerated Iranian dissidents before the 1979 revolution, writing a public letter on the topic of torture and political incarceration in Pahlavi prisons to Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda in 1972.33

Carceral politics do not always produce emancipatory solidarities, of course. Neoconservative political figures have also paid lip service to prisoner abuse in the Islamic Republic in order to further their own favored projects: crippling sanctions, military intervention, and US-government-led regime change (as opposed to Iranian people-led revolution). One emblematic instance came when former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced further sanctions on Iranians in 2020 with reference to “torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” meted out in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.34 These new sanctions came two years after sanctions levied by the US Treasury Department against Evin as an entity.35 There is a distinction, however, between the solidarity of grassroots prison activists like Angela Davis and the worldview of US officials like Mike Pompeo, despite nominally sharing support for Iranian prisoners. That difference lies in the material gaps between horizontal solidarities and the vertical might of US imperial power. To situate the history of Iran’s prisons in a global framework, then, is to analyze this history with a clear-eyed understanding of the global hierarchies of political and economic power implied by these differences while leaving open the possibility of the solidarities implied by Davis’s half-century-long support for Iranian prisoner movements. Such understudied connections to global architectures, economies, discourses, and political movements belie an understanding of contemporary mass incarceration and carceral modernity that would divide global regimes of punishment along political fault lines despite shared institutional, political, and conceptual histories.

I further argue throughout this book that both techniques of surveillance and punishment and responses to those techniques are not only global but also historical; that is, they have developed and varied over time. Modern punishment techniques are not natural, stable outgrowths of forms of governance or static essential cultures or religions—that is to say, we cannot speak coherently of essential forms of “fascist punishment,” “liberal punishment,” “Islamic punishment,” and so on—but are historically contingent (and constitutively transnational) practices that fluctuate and evolve in the shifting arsenal of modern power.36 Carceral states, along with the prisoners whom they detain, are adaptive and fluid, and their responses to each other have changed over time or in response to external pressures. We can find an illustrative example of this phenomenon in the prison writing of leftist novelist Bozorg Alavi, whose epochal 1940s prison memoirs reveal the degree to which the techniques and practices of both prison-keepers and prisoners in Iran were learned through trial, experimentation, education, and experience. Alavi explains that, in his time in Qasr, the lives of the incarcerated were increasingly regulated and limited by prison officials learning how to detain and discipline their wards more effectively. Just as importantly, he notes, it was within prison that otherwise ordinary people could learn to endure any difficulty:

The most difficult passions can be endured. A human being can get used to anything. Hunger, cold, all manner of bothers, and even torture—as long as they are repeated—can eventually be tolerated. . . . I saw prisoners at Qasr shiver through the freezing cold nights with barely a blanket and nonetheless wake up the next morning in good spirits.37

In response to this learned endurance, Alavi explains, prison leadership worked to make life progressively more uncomfortable for the incarcerated; if blankets were needed to stay comfortable, blankets would be taken away. If books provided comfort or helped pass the time, these too would be limited. I argue throughout this book that the archive of Iranian prisons across generations reveals both the continuities and learned transformations of the modern prison system in Iran.

Among the most important such learning experiences for the Pahlavi monarchy came in 1951–53, with the rise and CIA- and MI6-orchestrated downfall of popular anticolonial nationalist Mohammad Mossadeq as the country’s prime minister.38 It is now well established that in the aftermath of the US-led 1953 coup that deposed Mossadeq, the CIA and Israeli Mossad helped train the notorious new Iranian intelligence force, SAVAK (Sazman-e ettelaʿat va amniyat-e keshvar, or National Intelligence and Security Organization), further incorporating transnational policing, interrogation, and security methods into the arsenal of the Iranian state. As I show in later chapters of this book, the United States not only helped train SAVAK in this era but also sent military and police leaders—as well as considerable funding—to their Iranian counterparts in the service of “riot control” and an escalating “war on narcotics.” It is no accident that the grisly interrogation tactics and forced recantations now most associated with the postrevolutionary era were first inaugurated in this post-coup escalation of tactics against the shah’s political adversaries. Nor is it an accident that post-1979 methods of crowd control and drug-trade control would also be prefigured in this earlier moment.

The 1979 revolution would also serve as an inflection point in the history of Iran’s prisons, after which the country’s carceral system again underwent significant expansion. This era witnessed a vast increase in the total number of incarcerated Iranians, political dissidents and (mostly) otherwise, such that Iran is now among the most heavily carceral states in the world. The post-1979 state has also expanded the use of mass arrests during protests, forced confessions among political prisoners, and the death penalty for a variety of detainees. Although these methods predate the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, they have come to be virtually synonymous with the violence of the post-1979 state due in part to the dizzying and seemingly ceaseless expansion in their use. Despite this, Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries, like their hated monarchic predecessors, have also rhetorically promised a utopian carceral horizon. Just as members of the Pahlavi elite argued that a modernized prison system could end crime and violence altogether, the Islamic revolutionaries have promised that mass arrests of “counterrevolutionaries,” from dissidents to drug users, will similarly transform Iranian society, either in teaching antisocial elements to integrate into a utopian Islamic society or in eliminating those elements altogether.

I argue throughout the book that Iran’s carceral history is one of continued escalation and adaptation rather than one of meaningful alteration, let alone eradication, even after a successful revolutionary movement. I also flatly reject the view that would lay the blame for carceral violence in contemporary Iran—promoted by some rights advocates who call the Islamic Republic’s prisons “medieval”—at the feet of an apparently retrograde Iranian or Islamic culture or religion, sealed off from modern global trends or internal political vicissitudes.39 Such arguments are not only politically dangerous but also crumble under serious historical scrutiny. The long history of Iran’s carceral institutions teaches us to see the disturbing expansion of the post-1979 carceral state not in isolation but as part of a decades-long story of expanding carceralization with links to carceral practices around the world. Exceptionalizing the prisons of the Islamic Republic—that is, seeing those prisons as uniquely and singularly violent or repressive in comparison with prisons around the world—misunderstands the roots of carceral violence in Iran and only works to foreclose possibilities for more just futures. Iran has already experienced one revolution in which prisons were targeted as unjust only to later be expanded; any new effort at social or political transformation would need to dig out the roots of carcerality in order to effect true change.


1. Tara Sepehri Far, “Why Nasrin Sotoudeh Is on Hunger Strike to Protest Iran’s Dire Prison Conditions,” Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2020,

2. Anna Schaverian, “Trial Is Postponed of British-Iranian Woman Held in Iran,” New York Times, September 13, 2020,

3. Farnaz Fassihi and Marjorie Olster, “Iran Executes Wrestler Accused of Murder after He Took Part in 2018 Protests,” New York Times, September 12, 2020,

4. Haleh Esfandiari, My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran (New York: Harper Collins, 2009); Marina Nemat, Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008); and Marziyeh Amirzadeh and Maryam Rostampour, Captive in Iran: A Remarkable True Story of Hope and Triumph amid the Horror of Tehran’s Brutal Evin Prison (Atlanta: Tyndale Momentum, 2013). There has been controversy surrounding Nemat’s book. In 2007, a group of women led by Monira Baradaran, all of whom were once imprisoned in Evin Prison, signed a letter of protest to Penguin, the book’s publisher, writing,

For us who have spent many dark years in the prison, the publication of any book that would shed light on the unknown facts of the prisons of the Islamic Republic, particularly during the 1980s, is a source of hope. . . . Unfortunately we have to say that the publication of Ms. Nemat’s book outraged us. The scenes and atmosphere described in the book not only fail to bring to light the reality of the prison experience but it also distorts the truth. . . . The atmosphere and scenes are fictional. . . . We . . . have spent years inside the Islamic Republic’s Prison, and are familiar with the methods used for interrogation . . . and the behaviour of the interrogators and prison guards towards the prisoners and the scenes of execution. . . . We consider the publication of this book of distortions and fiction, an insult to ourselves and the thousands of political prisoners that were executed in prisons of the Islamic Republic.

Nemat has her supporters, however, including novelist Shahrnush Parsipur, who has also written a prison memoir recounting her experiences in Islamic Republic prisons in roughly the same era. For the letter, see Monira Baradaran and Golroch Jahangiri, “Letter to Penguin Publishers regarding Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran,” July 25, 2007, For Parsipur’s prison writing, see Shahrnush Parsipur, Khaterat-e zendan [Prison memoir] (Stockholm: Baran Press, 2000). For the English translation, see Shahrnush Parsipur, Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, trans. Sara Khalili (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013).

5. From Amnesty International’s 2016/2017 report on Iran. See Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2016/17—Iran, February 22, 2017,

6. Organization of Iranian People’s Fadai Guerrillas (OIPFG), “A Prisoner’s Report from Evin Prison,” Kar no. 14 (October 1984): 24.

7. For just a few examples in Persian, see Parvaneh Alizadeh, Khub negah konid, rastaki ast [Look closely, it’s real] (Paris: Khavaran Press, 1366/1987); and Monira Baradaran, Haqiqat-e sadeh [Plain truth], 2nd ed. (Lindenallee, Germany: Nima Verlag, 1379/2000). There are also numerous English-language Iranian prison memoirs. See, for instance, Jason Rezaian, Prisoner: My 544 in an Iranian Prison (Ecco: New York, 2018); Zarah Ghahramani, My Life as a Traitor: An Iranian Memoir (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008); Maziar Bahari, Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival (New York: Random House, 2011); Jila Baniuyaghoob, Women of Evin: Ward 209 (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2013); Ramin Jahanbegloo, Time Will Say Nothing: A Philosopher Survives an Iranian Prison (Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press, 2014); and Narges Mohammadi, White Torture: Interviews with Iranian Women Prisoners, trans. Amir Rezanezhad (New York: Oneworld, 2022).

8. Nasser Mohajer, Voices of a Massacre: Untold Stories of Life and Death in Iran, 1988 (New York: Oneworld, 2020).

9. There have been letter-writing campaigns representing a wide range of political worldviews on behalf of Iranian prisoners from all corners of the Iranian diaspora. The former crown prince Reza Pahlavi has engaged in several of these campaigns, many of which are documented on his website:

10. See, for example, Saʿid Ghiasian, ed., Khaterat-e zendan: Gazideh az nagofteha-ye zendanian-e siyasi-ye rezhim-e shah [Prison memoirs: A selection of untold stories by the political prisoners of the shah’s regime] (Tehran: Sureh Mehr, 1390/2011). Sureh Mehr is a publishing house connected to the state-affiliated Howzeh-Ye Honari (Department of Arts) of the Organization for Islamic Propaganda. See also Saʿid Samdipur, Shekanjeh dar rezhim-e shah [Torture in the shah’s regime] (Tehran: Markaz-e Asnad-e Enghelab-e Eslami [Center for the Documentation of the Islamic Revolution], 1386/2007). For an example of the Islamic Republic’s selective reporting on torture outside of Iran, see a report published by IRNA (the Islamic Republic News Agency) on the torture of Palestinians in Israeli prisons: “Zendan-haye Zionisti: Makhuf va makhfi” [Zionist prisons: Horrific and secretive], IRNA, Farvardin 11, 1392/March 31, 2013,

11. “Moruri bar khaterat-e Ayatollah Khamenei dar zendanha-ye setamshahi” [A review of Ayatollah Khamenei’s memoirs from the prisons of the oppressive shah],, Bahman 21, 2017/February 9, 2017,

12. On legal centralization, see Hadi Enayat, Law, State, and Society in Modern Iran: Constitutionalism, Autocracy, and Legal Reform, 1906–1941 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

13. Ahmad Rahraw Khuajah and Nasser Rubayʿi, Tarikh-e zendan dar ʿasr-e Qajar va Pahlavi [The history of prison in the Qajar and Pahlavi eras] (Tehran: Entesharat-e Qoqnus, 1390/2011), 104. For more on Hooman, see Parviz Saney, “Iran,” in International Developments in Criminology, ed. E. H. Johnson (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983), 2:357–69.

14. “Modir-e tarahi-ye bagh, muzeh-ye zendan-e qasr,” ISNA, 9 Tir 1385/June 30, 2006,

15. The construction of the radio masts was announced in Ettelaʿat Monthly. Quoted in Mohammad Javad Moradiniya, Hekayat-e Qasr: Az Qajar ta Pahlavi (Tehran: Entesharat-e Negah, 1397/2018), 39.

16. Grainy video of the liberation of these prisoners has continued to circulate online, reminding contemporary viewers of the highest original aspirations of the revolutionary movement. See Televizion-e Rah-e Kargar Dar YouTube, “Azadi zendanian-e siasi beh dast-e mardom,” February 9, 2013, YouTube video, 1:58,

17. In 1935, Reza Shah announced to the world that the nation over which he presided, known internationally as Persia, would from that point forward be known externally, as it already was internally, as Iran. In this book, I often use the term Iran to refer to the region both before 1935 and after, for ease of reference and because switching back and forth can be clunky for nonspecialist readers. Yet the act of calling the region in question one name across time and space raises a thorny historiographical and philosophical issue, insofar as the nation-state of “Iran” is decidedly a modern construction even if some version of Iranzamin (the Land of Iran) is not. I endeavor to write against the grain of nationalist understandings of an essential and timeless Iran, but because I must call it something, Iran it usually is. In the post-1979 period, Iran once again formally changed its name, this time to the Islamic Republic of Iran. For the post-1979 era, I use Iran and the Islamic Republic interchangeably.

18. Fazlollah Bahrami, then head of Reza Shah’s department of prisons, lists the number of prisoners held in Tehran in 1927 on the eve of legal centralization at four hundred. See Fazlollah Bahrami, Majaleh-ye polis, no. 17 (Azar 1306/December 1927).

19. “Iran: 333% Increase of Prison Populace in 30 Years,” Prison Insider, May 25, 2017, This number is likely an undercount, for reasons I explain in chapter 5. Jahangir, whose tenure as head of the prison system ended in 2020, routinely cited the number of Iran’s prisoners at about a quarter million. See also “Iran’s Overcrowded Prisons Hold a Quarter of a Million People, Says Chief Warden,” Radio Farda, May 12, 2018,

20. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, 2nd ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977; New York: Vintage Books, 1995). Citations refer to the Vintage edition. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault introduces the notion of the carceral continuum or carceral network—that is, linked institutions including prison, policing, and judicial systems.

21. Donne Raffat, The Prison Papers of Bozorg Alavi (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1985), 49.

22. Fadaian-e Islam, “Communiqué from a Group of Visitors to Hazrat Navab Safavi Written to the Brave Muslims of Iran and the World,” n.d., file no. 5-26-256, the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Iranian History Archives, Tehran.

23. For an example of work Jazani produced while imprisoned, see Bizhan Jazani, Tarh-e jamaʿeh shenasi va mabani-ye esteratezhi-ye jonbesh-e enqelabi-ye Iran (Tehran: Maziyar Press, 1979).

24. For instance, see the digital map of Evin Prison produced by former political prisoners: “Evin Prison,” comp. and ed. by Xavier Greenwood and Basia Cummings, Tortoise Media, September 7, 2020,

25. Bongah-e Taʿavun va Sanaʿi-e Zendanian [Institute for the Cooperation and Industry of Prisoners], Faʿaliyat-e seh saleh-ye Bongah-e Taʿavun va Sanaʿi-e Zendanian [Three years of activity of the Institution for the Cooperation and Industry of Prisoners] (Tehran: n.p., 1344/1965), 10.

26. Bongah-e Taʿavun va Sanaʿi-e Zendanian, Gozaresh-e az zendanha [A report from the prisons] (Tehran: Edareh-e Kol-e Zendanha va Chapgah-e Bongah-e Taʿavun va Sanaʿi-e Zendanian, 1347/1968), 24.

27. On similar processes in Latin America, see Carlos Aguirre and Ricardo D. Salvatore, eds., The Birth of the Penitentiary in Latin America: Essays on Criminology, Prison Reform, and Social Control: 1830–1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996)

28. “Haj Mohammadi: Baraye tabdil-e zendan beh amuzeshgah-e nikiha, niazmand-e amuzgaran-e tarbiati hastim,” ISNA, 26 Farvardin 1400/April 15, 2021,

29. Rohollah Faghihi, “Enough Is Enough: Iranians Frustrated over Police Drive to Enforce Hijab-Wearing in Cars,” Middle East Eye, October 25, 2020,

30. “Sotangu-ye setad-e amr be maʿruf: gasht-e amniyat-e akhlaqi tamam shod; dar charchub-e novintar eraeʿh mishavad,” Radio Farda, 15 Azar 1401/December 6, 2022,

31. Ardeshir Avanessian, Yaddashtha-ye zendan: Salha-ye 1928–1942 [Prison writing: The years 1928–1942] (Stockholm: Hezb-e Tudeh, 1979).

32. Angela Davis, foreword to Mojaher, Voices of a Massacre, xv.

33. Quoted in Manijeh Moradian, This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States (Duke University Press, 2022), 150.

34. “U.S. Imposes Visa Restrictions on 14 Iranians over Human Rights Violations,” Reuters, August 21, 2020,

35. Ian Talley, “U.S. Sanctions Iran’s Evin Prison, Broadcasting Chief, and Others, Alleging Human Rights Abuses,” Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2018,

36. My argument here is influenced by that of political theorist Darius Rejali, who has written on torture in Iran and in the world. Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

37. Bozorg Alavi, Panjah va seh nafar [The Fifty-three] (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1357/1978).

38. Ervand Abrahamian, The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations (New York: The New Press, 2015).

39. Iran Human Rights Monitor, for instance, refers to Evin’s “medieval equipment for torture.” This is one in countless examples of such language. “A Glimpse of Evin Prison, Iran’s Most Notorious Jail,” Iran Human Rights Monitor, October 28, 2018,