[This is the first installment of a two-part roundtable on abolitionism and Iran featuring Naveed Mansoori, Golnar Nikpour and Omid Tofighian. Read Part 2 here.]
The police murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 in the United States sparked widespread global protests and inspired widespread interest in the project of prison abolitionism. The project understands punishment and exclusion as the primary mechanisms of social control. It focuses on prisons, police, and the myriad institutions and actors—what Michel Foucault described as the “prison archipelago”—that sustain them or act on their behalf.
Initially founded as a movement to abolish slavery across the Americas, Black feminist scholars and activists such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba recovered the language of abolitionism to critique the US prison system following the formal declaration of equal civil and political rights in the 1960s. Since the 1980s, the United States has expanded its prison system to roughly a quarter-million people, the largest prison body per capita in the world. Michelle Alexander names this age of mass incarceration “the New Jim Crow,” due to the disproportionate number of Black prisoners.
Some have applied this critique of prisons and police beyond the territorial United States, notably in Palestine and Brazil. Scholars have also discussed and critiqued modern prisons in Iran at length, from Ervand Abrahamian to Darius Rejali and recently Nasser Mohajer. Recently, Middle East activists and writers concerned with peoples incarcerated during the COVID-19 pandemic have added their voices to the global call for abolition. This roundtable adds to these efforts, asking does US-based research and activism organized around abolitionism provide insight into the condition of imprisoned Iranians in the Islamic Republic and abroad? Can and should the call to abolition prisons be a global one? Do these disparate settings need movements and languages attentive to their specificity?
We asked three scholar-activists of Iran and Iranians whose work concerns prisons and abolition transnationally to address these questions in conversation: Australian philosopher, translator, and community advocate Omid Tofighian and Jadaliyya Iran Page co-editors Golnar Nikpour and Naveed Mansoori. Their responses appear as a two-part roundtable.
What is incarceration?
Golnar Nikpour: We must think historically when we talk about incarceration. Although there are records of confinement-as-punishment going back to the earliest human societies, we must distinguish between these earlier forms and modern carceral systems. Contemporary incarceration is characterized first by the transformational vastness of its scope and reach; the numbers of people confined in earlier periods wildly pales in comparison to the numbers of those incarcerated beginning in the nineteenth century and exponentially increasing until today. In Iran, for instance, the number of incarcerated persons jumped from just a few hundred in the early twentieth century to over a quarter million today; before the twentieth century, confinement almost never lasted longer than a year, and rarely even lasted that long. Meanwhile, many millions of people around the world today are incarcerated and set to serve sentences that represent billions of years of human life. When considering size, scale, and disruption of social worlds, our current carceral system simply has no earlier historical antecedent. There is also no antecedent for the scope of the contemporary carceral system beyond prison walls—policing, surveillance, punishment, borders regimes, etc. are all either dramatically expanded from earlier forms or entirely novel techniques of control.
The second distinguishing characteristic of modern carceral systems is that they rely on the production of the categories criminal/non-criminal, with the insider/outsider notion of social belonging that those categories entail. Modern notions of citizenship and nationalized inclusion are shaped in part by the work that categories of criminality do in delimiting who does and does not fit within a polity. In this, I am influenced by Lisa Cacho’s definition of “criminalization.” Cacho argues that criminalization is not simply the marking of certain groups as criminal, but rather the process by which behaviors get newly categorized as “criminal,” thus rendering certain populations vulnerable to carceral responses—that is, surveillance, policing, detention, incarceration, torture, etc. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, the criminalization of certain forms of gendered dress has rendered women in public spaces vulnerable to policing and state violence. In the United States, which is amid a nationwide mass uprising against racist policing, criminalization has rendered Black communities especially vulnerable to extraordinary forms of judicial and extrajudicial violence. Similarly, both countries have criminalized border crossing and have incarcerated racialized others—Latino migrants at the southern border of the US; Afghan migrants at the eastern border of Iran. Notably, both borders have been carceralized in part by using the rhetoric of a (racialized) war on drugs. These are not identical situations or processes, but these examples nonetheless give us a sense of how social difference—race, ethnicity, gender, poverty, immigration status—is in part mediated and produced through carceral interventions.
Lastly, the modern prison is distinguished from earlier forms of confinement by the prison institution’s original promise of representing a civilizational leap forward for humanity by curtailing the “barbarity” of pre-modern punishments. As French philosopher Michel Foucault reminds us, it is an institution born in part from reformist impulses and predicated on being able to transform (i.e., civilize) incarcerated persons. Hence, the phrase “correctional” facility. These “correctional” and “civilizing” discourses must be understood as part of the broader story of European liberal imperialism (and the racial hierarchies inherent to that project), the rise of the modern nation-state, and the expanding reach of globalizing capital. In the Iranian case, the modern prison system was established in the 1920s-30s by Pahlavi statesmen who believed that Iran simply could not be a civilized modern state without modern prisons and policing, and who were moved towards these reforms by powerful Euro/American trends. In recent decades, this original reformist pretense has all-but-collapsed around the world as prison populations have ballooned. While intellectuals and activists have long challenged even this pretense of reformism, to understand the history of the modern prison we have to understand that it originated in Euro/American locales as an institution that at least rhetorically promised humane, rational, scientific, and even transformational possibilities for the incarcerated. Then we must look at the specific social contexts in which similar prison systems have taken root and ask ourselves why none of these seeming promises have ever come close to being fulfilled.
Naveed Mansoori: Ruth Wilson Gilmore provides a useful description of incarceration: it is “the practice of putting people in cages for part or all of their lives.” Four predominant reasons for why modern states justify incarcerating people are retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. The prison is the central site of incarceration, yet carceral states are sustained with policing. The concept of “carcerality” refers to the way carceral strategies do not just belong to prisons, but are distributed across myriad social institutions, ranging from schools to hospitals. Carceral states are sustained through carceral strategies and are organized around carceral sites.
Omid Tofighian: My recent work thinks about incarceration as a bordering practice. I consider borders to be physical, symbolic and epistemic and build on scholarship that moves beyond the notion of borders and bordering as things and interprets them as evolving processes and institutions. ‘Practices of bordering’ refers to the demarcation of spaces, processes of territorialization and the multiple dimensions of boundaries—all of these perpetually subject to contingent events and ideas. In this context, borders are part of broad, interweaving processes in which they are used to assign and sustain meaning and control movement. Borders and bordering also exist and function within complex, fluid and multiplying networks of oppression and carceral technologies. In addition, my work explores and suggests ways of debordering, and working towards abolition, particularly in the context of immigration detention.
How do you think about incarceration in your work? What specific carceral sites are you thinking about and working on?
NM: I focus on the various ways people in Iran have navigated heavily policed spheres of political life. A question I ask is how public life in contemporary Iran emerged through the threat of incarceration. The police denied dissidents their freedom to participate in public life by incarcerating them when dissidents exercised their freedom in ways that threatened public order. For instance, dissidents responded to state censorship in pre-revolutionary Iran by organizing dissident counter-publics so that they could publicize dissent. People also learned how to elude censors, either by maintaining privacy or speaking in coded language. There was virtue in public truth-telling, yet so too in knowing when to whisper or to stay silent.
Likewise, I think about how people listen, share silence, and experience silence in carceral states. From 1971 to 1975, the SAVAK, the Pahlavi State’s secret police, tortured political prisoners to get confessions. Noted Marxist-Leninists apologized for their ways and praised the efforts of the Pahlavi State. The state published the “interviews” or broadcast them on state-run radio and television to sway public opinion. The idea was that if notable intellectuals thought the state was doing things right, other intellectuals would change their minds. Yet all this was too little, too late. State legitimacy was gone. If you heard your comrades turn a one-eighty, you were not likely to believe what you heard. When there is a silenced population, people who can speak are in a difficult position to give voice. In pre-revolutionary Iran, there was a widespread sensibility that people in general, including those who “confessed,” disagreed with the state when silent. People who are incarcerated are silenced. How do we listen to that silence? How do we speak of it?
OT: My research interests and activism in relation to incarceration were originally influenced by two factors: Black cultural production from the United States (particularly hip hop), and forced migration and the border industrial complex (particularly Australia’s detention industry). My activities then expanded to include select issues related to 1) the dispossession and incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; 2) the notion of physical, symbolic and epistemic borders and bordering practices (bordering as processes and institutions); and 3) the relationship between border violence and the global prison industry.
I consider multifarious sites such as prisons, immigration detention centers, universities, and media organizations; and different geographic locations such as Australia, the United States, Iran and certain EU countries. I argue that debordering and dismantling need to address the material conditions that create and sustain carceral sites and other systems of oppression, and that this needs to be interdependent with achieving epistemic justice and transforming the symbolic aesthetic that drives bordering practices and structural injustice. My approach places special focus on popular culture and narrative; for instance, in a recent course I designed called “Prison Writing” I address work by incarcerated writers which include poetry and song lyrics, fiction, non-fiction (such as autobiography and journalism), creative non-fiction and cinema. In addition, I emphasize some of the support work done by and with Indigenous peoples and refugees, especially from Australia and neighboring countries: Sisters Inside (Australia); Deaths Inside (Australia); IndigenousX (Australia); Dreaming Inside (Australia); Jurrungu Ngan-ga by Marrugeku (Australia); Deathscapes (Australia, North America and UK/EU); People Against Prisons Aotearoa (New Zealand); and Writing Through Fences (Australia, Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Indonesia). I also give special attention to examples actually produced in carceral sites and borderlands, such as Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains and his co-directed film (with Arash Kamali Sarvestani) Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time—both text and subtitles my translation; Dreaming Inside; Writing Through Fences; poetry by Hani Abdile; writing by Hass Hassaballa, Mohamed Adam, and Mardin Arvin and Erfan Dana (both my trans.); art and music by Farhad Bandesh and Mostafa Azimitabar; Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi; Tilapia Sucks the Blood of Hur al-Azim by Sepideh Gholian; letters by Nasrin Sotoudeh; The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank; Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o; books by Abdullah Öcalan; Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina; and pieces by Angela Davis, Mumia Abu Jamal and Martin Luther King, Jr. And I draw on ideas and theories from social epistemology, decoloniality and abolition movements.
A lot of my research and activism has been dedicated to Australia’s carceral-border archipelago, which includes immigration detention centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, on the Republic of Nauru (both former Australian colonies that gained independence in the 60s and 70s), on Christmas Island (an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean) and Australian-funded detention centers in Indonesia (through the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration). In 2001 the Australian government set up offshore carceral sites, referred to by critics as gulags, to detain people seeking asylum by boat traveling from Indonesia: Manus for men travelling alone and Nauru for women, unaccompanied minors and families. Most of my work has been focused on Manus Island, in addition to onshore detention centers.
Over the last five years I have been collaborating with Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish Iranian writer, journalist and cultural advocate who spent over six years in the notorious Manus Island detention facility. Behrouz escaped to New Zealand in November 2019 and his asylum claim was accepted this year on the 23 July (both his birthday and the day his boat was picked up by the Australian Navy in 2013). Our most notable work is the multi-award-winning book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (2018), written by Behrouz via WhatsApp text message on a mobile phone smuggled into the prison, and translated and edited by me while in Sydney, Cairo and Manus Island. Together we critically analyze the symmetrical relationship between carceral sites such as Manus and Australian society and institutions (part of what we refer to as Manus Prison theory). We also collaborate on various creative and scholarly projects with other refugees in immigration detention or people who have recently been released (see my translations of work by Kurdish Iranian writer Mardin Arvin, currently imprisoned onshore after transfer from Papua New Guinea).
I plan to start applying my critical methods and research experiences to the situation of marginalized and criminalized ethnic and religious groups in Iran. Members of these communities are part of the prison population in Australia’s detention network. People seeking asylum from marginalized groups include Kurds (including Feyli Kurds), Ahwazi Arabs (also Sunni), Hazaras, Christian converts and other persecuted religious groups, open atheists and those with links to banned political groups (the situation of queer and trans people must also be addressed by researchers and activists with expertise).
GN: I study and write on the history of prisons and carceral systems in Iran from the late Qajar period to the contemporary Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as the global context for the emergence of these institutions. Although I work primarily on Iranian prison history, the global reach of the modern carceral state—itself a legacy of European colonialism and globalizing capital—has pushed me to think broadly and transnationally about the history of this institution as well as political responses to its emergence and expansion.
In the Iranian case, there is a great deal of work done—both by subsequent governments and by prisoners’ rights groups and international NGOs—to distinguish between “political” and “non-political” prisoners, both within the prison system and even in the political imaginations of those critiquing that system. I have written about this elsewhere, but throughout my work I make the case that we must think more capaciously about what we mean by “political prisoners.” In other words, I argue that the historical transformations by which things like drug use, sex work, refugee border crossing, etc. have all come to be addressed through policing and incarceration have themselves been political processes. I worry that the hard distinction between “political” and “non-political” offenses in the Iranian political imagination has had the effect of naturalizing the vast majority of arrests and imprisonments in Iran, which are for “ordinary” offences.
How would you describe the intersecting histories of prisons, detention centers, and carceral sites across the globe? Is there one story to tell or are there many?
NM: Carceral states bulldoze history. Theirs is a flat world. They number lives and turn them into “criminal histories.” We see this play out in obituary writing after police kill Black people. Journalists select moments of a life from a set of “illicit” actions. This perspective is the administrative point-of-view. It is storytelling as a police report. These stories work to justify punishment. If we begin with a universal category, “the incarcerated,” we overlook differences. We conform to criminal history. Whether we are thinking of San Quentin, Otay Mesa, or Guantanamo Bay, we are habituated to grasp the lived experiences of the carceral state as one: the incarcerated are a criminal body, their history is captured by fluctuations in crime rates, those rates are driven by a criminal justice system that separates the guilty from the innocent. Criminal historiography in the United States has its origins in the narrative arc of repentance. Social conceptions of lawfulness historically provide standards for explaining and justifying crime and punishment. A challenge of thinking about carceral sites is to work through the ideologies that justify them. That is the pathbreaking, eye-opening work that Michelle Alexander did in The New Jim Crow, in which she was able to demonstrate continuity between slavery and mass incarceration.
GN: That is a great point Naveed.
In my view, varying forms of incarceration—including jails, prisons, migrant camps, labor camps, interrogation centers, detention centers, internment camps, etc.—differ widely and have histories that cannot be collapsed into each other. There are discrete stories to be told regarding how modern prison systems were introduced in different locales and whom they were used to discipline. There are also particular stories to be told about how the incarcerated have made lives and politics in the context of forced confinement. The legacies of colonialism, slavery, national border-making, expanding global capital, and authoritarianism, do not produce uniform effects.
Take the issue of prison labor for example. On the one hand, innumerable carceral sites around the world have used or today use prison labor, so much so that it might seem close to universal. Still, we cannot simply tell one story about prison labor and expect it to hold true across contexts. In the Iranian case, the Pahlavi state publicly promoted its prison labor program as progressive and reformist in nature, all while nonetheless boasting of the surplus value produced for the state by laboring prisoners. The post-revolutionary government in Iran has wrapped that logic in the language of Islam, saying that prison labor is capable of transforming the soul of the incarcerated. On the other hand, Florence Bernault’s work on prisons in colonial Africa reveals the viciously exploitative quality of this forced labor. Here, there was virtually no pretense that the labor had any reformist end for the incarcerated. The goal was simply producing wealth for colonial states. In the US context, meanwhile, as numerous Black activists, scholars, and artists have shown, prison labor today is an explicit continuation of the institution of slavery.
NM: Right. There is a problem, carcerality, but the wealth of carcerality belongs to its multiple histories. How we approach the problem depends on the work we’re doing. For example, the Islamic Republic inherited Evin Prison in Tehran from the Pahlavi State. So too, the history of forced confessions inaugurated by the ancien régime was carried on by the Islamic Republic. Is the history of carcerality in Iran singular, or is it homologous with parallel systems elsewhere? Put otherwise, how might we think of continuities between carceral sites across the world along with the histories that make them unique? The two facts above about Iran suggest continuity.
Yet there are also registers and dynamics of prison history in Iran that are singular. In 1984, the main theoretician of the Tudeh Communist Party, Ehsan Tabari, published Kajrāheh [Waywardness] while in Evin Prison. The Ministry of Intelligence wrote the text on his behalf after he suffered a stroke, drawing on interrogations. Waywardness was a history of the left and a criminal autobiography that culminated with, in his own words, an awakening. Tabari organized the story of his life, and the history of the left along with it, around a social conception of what is good and legal, relative to the time and place he wrote. When Tabari said he experienced an awakening, he was referring to his conversion to Islam from Marxism. He underwent, and narrativized, a story of repentance. But the metaphor of “awakening” has its own specific history in modern and contemporary Iran, with origins in Islamic history and philosophy. That raises an historical question: Is Evin a place of penitence like the penitentiaries built by Quakers in America or is it built with the brick-and-mortar of a different archive? It does not have to be one or the other. It could be that different histories are congealed in this one place, Evin. As we work through the one history of carcerality, we start seeing the multiple histories that are foundational to it.
GN: Although histories of incarceration cannot be collapsed into each other, I believe that there are significant links between disparate carceral systems. In my own research, I have discovered repeatedly that the architectures, economies, and techniques of modern punishment are transnational and linked. For instance, blueprints used for federal prisons in the United States in the twentieth century (and now into the twenty-first century) were used around the world—from Iran to Israel to New Zealand and beyond. International prison conferences based in Europe drew officials from Asia, Africa, and the Americas as early as the nineteenth century. Today, neoliberalism, privatization, and securitization have linked carceral sites in new networks of capital, techniques, and peoples. This is why we see, for instance, the spread of surveillance tech (think facial recognition software) to “democratic” states and “undemocratic” states alike. Unsurprisingly, the Islamic Republic is now experimenting with this technology, already popular around the world, in its own surveillance state. And of course, prisoners around the world have long organized their political struggles around principles learned in conversation with fellow prisoners and movements around the world. In the popular imagination, we tend to imagine certain countries as having particularly brutal or even “barbaric” prison systems—Iran being one of those countries. Yet I have found over and over again that carceral sites around the world are inexorably linked. For me, this means that our urgent efforts to decarceralize our world must also be transnational in scope, and anticolonial, anticapitalist, and anti-militarist in content.
OT: I agree that it is extremely important to create a global movement that aims toward prison abolition by exposing and transforming the operations of racial capitalism. But as someone living and working on Aboriginal land—Sydney’s northern suburbs are part of un-ceded lands of the Darramuragal people—it is necessary that I prioritize resisting settler colonialism and anti-Blackness here in Australia by supporting Indigenous peoples first and building from there. In fact, the incarceration of displaced and exiled peoples by the Australian state is part of the same settler-colonial project and deeply intertwined with the dispossession, displacement, and ongoing suppression of First Nations. The establishment of the land as a penal colony by the British Empire in 1788 has multiplied and morphed into numerous carceral sites since invasion, including offshore prisons to hold refugees indefinitely since 2001.
The death of George Floyd due to police brutality galvanized global Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund the police and hold them accountable; this took on a particular kind of power in Australia and inspired grassroots Aboriginal groups to build on previous work and organize massive protest against systemic racism, especially disproportionately high incarceration and the over four hundred Black deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-1991). In relation to immigration detention, the same companies contracted to build, secure, manage, and maintain the facilities are operating in the same or similar carceral sites around the world (companies such as G4S, Serco, Transfield/Broadspectrum, IHMS, and many more). Also, many guards hired to supervise refugees—who have already experienced multiple forms of trauma—either worked as guards in regular population prisons or were soldiers in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan (places from which many of the refugees fled). There are other disturbing connections: Australia is directly involved in driving forced migration by their involvement in foreign wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), training and supplying militaries involved in genocide (Sri Lanka), and involvement in brutal economic sanctions that indiscriminately weaken populations and help quash pro-democracy movements (Iran).
An area I hope to explore further is the persecution and incarceration of deportees. A significant number of people have already lost their lives (including by suicide) or experienced imprisonment after refoulement to different places including Iran, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. In relation to marginalized and criminalized ethnic and religious groups it is important to acknowledge how their experiences of oppression in countries such as Iran are replicated, and even amplified, in immigration detention. Australian detention camps, for instance, hold ethnic Kurds, Arabs, Hazaras, Christian converts and other persecuted religious groups, and open atheists. Gay people persecuted in their countries are also detained (refugees have reported that queer and trans people have also been incarcerated, but this has never been investigated by Australian authorities). Same-sex relations are punishable with up to fourteen years imprisonment on Manus (facilities for men travelling alone) and Nauru (facilities for women, unaccompanied minors and families).