Iranian ‘prison restaurant’ aims to free irrecoverable inmates

TEHRAN: Two Iranian ex-prisoners have successfully opened a “prison restaurant” to help raise funds to release convicts languishing behind bars for unpaid debts.

A storefront photo of their “Cell 16” restaurant in eastern Tehran shows a frustrated prisoner holding a chicken leg in one hand and trying with the other to bend the bars of his cell to escape. The idea for the restaurant was born in prison.

“I met my companion while we were in police custody,” says Benyamin Nakhat, 31.

“I used to work in the iron market in Tehran, but I went bankrupt. I found myself penniless.

His partner, Arman Alizadeh, a 30-year-old exporter, is also in debt.

Iranian law is tough on writing bad checks and failing to pay agreed-upon dowries or bank loans: it’s jail time until the money is repaid.

More than 11,000 Iranians are behind bars for non-payment of debts, according to prison officials. This represents nearly 5% of Iran’s total prison population.

Two years after their release, the prison friends opened cell 16, with its dining tables separated behind bars. “Decorating the place was easy; we just reproduced the place where we had been detained,” Nakhat said with a smile. “We wanted to show that prison isn’t necessarily a place full of bad guys.

“Detainees are sometimes people who have not committed crimes but who have had misfortunes. It can happen to anyone.”

With the help of social media, the business has been a success, having opened in 2016 with just seven “cell” tables. It has expanded to two more restaurants, in Tehran and the central city of Isfahan.

But the owners have not forgotten their struggling comrades.

“We want to help inmates by raising funds,” Alizadeh said. “We help indebted prisoners by sometimes launching aid campaigns with donors or customers.

“We post the requests on our Instagram page and everyone contributes in their own way. A portion of the restaurant’s proceeds will also be used to help free prisoners.

He added that “often it is the wives of detainees who ask for help. We choose those who seem to us a priority: For example, a married person with children, or sick people unable to work to repay a loan.

Several associations and celebrities are involved in such charities.

According to the official IRNA news agency, last year 130 million dollars were donated to pay off the debts of thousands of prisoners.

Cell 16 also employs newly released ex-convicts.

Accompanied by her two friends, diner Hasti Berjissian, 24, purchasing manager in a factory, likes the concept.

“We’ve been coming here since it opened,” she says, taking a bite of pizza. “The food is good but above all, we want to help the prisoners.”

In another cell, Shiva Shemshaki, 33, celebrated her husband’s birthday.

“I’m coming because a friend of ours has been in jail for nine months for unpaid debts,” she said. “He had bought property but, because of inflation, he was broke.”

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