Rene — Iran theatre director turned prison boss wins praise

Topic(s): Prisons | Comments Off on Rene — Iran theatre director turned prison boss wins praise

editorial note: PR job, yes, but still interesting – rg
FEATURE-Iran theatre director turned prison boss wins praise
By Paul Hughes
TEHRAN, Aug 10 (Reuters) – Putting a former theatre director in charge
of a detention centre for hardened young criminals might seem a bold
For Iran, where prison directors tend to have military backgrounds and
human rights activists say abuse of detainees is rife, it is nothing
short of revolutionary.
But the once run-down and violent Tehran Juvenile Correction and
Rehabilitation Centre has undergone a sea-change since Mansour
Moqarehabed took charge six years ago, winning praise from
international observers and local rights groups.
Blending unorthodox methods — one involves taking a depressed inmate
for a night out in the city — with an emphasis on trust and
participation, Moqarehabed has even won over sceptical colleagues
accustomed to a more robust approach.
“There was some resistance from the staff here at first and they used
to say it had become the kids’ kingdom and that I was too kind to
them,” he told Reuter during a visit to the centre in northwestern
“(But) the judiciary wanted these changes to happen. That’s why they
appointed someone with a theatrical background and not a military
Grave problems still exist in Iran’s prisons system. A June Human
Rights Watch report called “Like the Dead in their Coffins” detailed
many cases of torture and abuse of students and journalists by their
Last month, one inmate had to have his hands amputated after being
bound to a ceiling fan in a prison in southwestern Iran.
Iran’s hardline judiciary has latched on to the juvenile centre as a
potential antidote to the negative publicity.
President Mohammad Khatami recently paid a high-profile visit,
international delegations are regularly given a tour and now, for the
first time with Reuters’ visit, the foreign media have been allowed in
to have a look.
Inside the sprawling complex — currently home to about 210 boys and
30 girls housed in a separate wing — there is a relaxed, but orderly
atmosphere. Security appeared low key with just a handful of
uniformed guards and no barred windows.
The boys were busy with a range of activities from playing soccer to
learning job skills such as hairdressing or computing.
In one workshop a group of boys took a carpentry class, wielding saws
and chisels even though many had history of violent crimes, including
stabbings and murder.
“I want to trust them and they have to trust us,” said Moqarehabed,
placing his arm around a boy who was holding a chisel in one hand and
a mallet in the other.
“When the children see that we like them, they like us in return,”
agreed Madieh Firouzie, who runs the smaller section for girls, most
of whom were picked up for prostitution. “When they see that we
respect them they never forget it.”
Rights worker Mahbubeh Khonsariyeh, who teaches the children “life
skills” such as how to avoid arguments, said the centre had
revolutionised the handling of juvenile criminals.
“The centre has been very successful in developing these children. If
only society would be as receptive to them,” said Khonsariyeh, a
member of the Association for the Defence of Children’s Rights run by
Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.
Attention has been paid to small details in an effort to make the
centre less intimidating for its young inmates. Spotless dormitories
have been painted a soothing sky blue and have curtains and flower
boxes where there used to be bars.
“Putting children in prison encourages a sense of hostility and
revenge,” said Moqarehabed. “Here the children don’t feel like
inmates, they feel more relaxed and integrated.”
To encourage integration and participation the centre has its own
council and mayor elected by the youngsters.
Current Mayor Saman Ganji was an angry, 15-year-old convicted murderer
when he arrived.
Now 17 and just weeks from completing a reduced three-year sentence he
smiled shyly when asked if he was ready to leave.
“This place has helped me a lot in getting over my previous situation
… I’ll be sad to leave but I want to return to my life outside,” he
Inside Ganji has kept up with his schooling and earned diplomas in
computing and electronics. He recently represented the centre at a
youth forum with Khatami and personally invited him to pay a visit.
Students also run their own magazine “Our House.” A recent issue
contained advice on how to remain calm and an interview with a
repentant drug dealer.
Troublemakers are disciplined, but often in unconventional ways. One
boy who was caught smashing windows using a catapult was ordered to
make 20 more of the handheld weapons.
“Then I took him and a group of boys into the mountains and we all
smashed bottles using the catapults,” Moqarehabed said, mimicking the
catapult’s action.
After a few hours of fun the boys wanted to go back to the
centre. “They soon grew tired of smashing windows after that.”
– Additional reporting by Parinoosh Arami