Life on the Inside | Episode 2 | Crooked Media
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September 28, 2021
544 Days
Life on the Inside | Episode 2
10 Episodes


In This Episode

Jason and Yegi are each detained in solitary confinement, enduring everything from cruel interrogations to the tedium of vacuuming their own cells. Without any information from the outside, Jason starts to fear that no one is doing anything to free them.



Jason Rezaian: Previously on 544 Days:


[clip of Anthony Bourdain] Do you like it, you’re happy here?


[clip of Jason] Look, I love it and I hate it, you know, but it’s home. It’s become home.


[news clip] 38-year old Iranian American journalist, Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Salehi were taken into custody on Tuesday evening.


Jason Rezaian: If you Google Project Avocado, what comes up is the CIA plan to monitor regimes in other countries.


Jason to Yegi: Did you think that we were going away for a few hours or for a long time?


Yegi: Maybe a week, 10 days. Something like that.


[music ends]


Jason Rezaian: Twice a day, the guards at Evin prison would take me out of my four by eight-foot cell. They’d walk me into a walled courtyard for 20 minutes of fresh air. I was allowed to walk back and forth in straight lines between two walls, head down, blindfolded. All I could see was my feet and a few inches in front of them. I would wonder about Yegi. What were they doing to her? Where her days the same as mine? Was she also being grilled with ridiculous questions? Was she shuffling between two walls too? That’s what I would think about on those hopeless walks. When you’re in solitary confinement, you have a lot of time to think. Pretty soon I realized that that your mind can be your own best friend or your worst enemy. I decided to turn it to better things. I replayed baseball games I’d gone to and stats. Like who was the home run champion in 1987? Mark McGuire. I’d made mental lists of countries I’ve been to and meals I really enjoyed. And I tried to create routines. One day when I was outside, I picked up a small pebble with my toes and hid it in my slipper. I used that rock to count the days, notching lines in the aluminum wall of my bathroom stall, just like in movies. Four lines and then a diagonal strike through them for the fifth day. Keeping an accurate count becomes really important. It’s the only thing grounding you in reality when you’re being fed nothing but lies. Like this one from my interrogator, Kazem: he said the Iranian government announced that Yegi and I had died in a car crash, and he insisted that everyone believed it. Your mother was sad, he said, but she got over it. Sounds like such an obvious lie, right? But when you’re in solitary and your captors are fucking with you every minute of every day, you start to wonder. I had no way of knowing what was true.


[theme music plays]


Jason Rezaian: I’m Jason Rezaian, and this is 544 Days. Episode two: Life Inside Iran’s most notorious prison, where political prisoners are held, tortured, sometimes executed. Evin is a filthy place. What do you expect? It’s a fucking prison. Every so often, though, guards would come and tell me to clean my tiny quarters. I found out later it was the same for Yegi.


Jason to Yegi: Did they ever bring the vacuum cleaner to your cell?


Yegi: I asked for it on day two because they put me in a—


Jason to Yegi: —in a disgusting—


Yegi: —in a disgusting place that had all kinds of insects, like cockroaches and . . . marmolak?


Jason to Yegi: Lizards. Was it that big, massive vacuum cleaner?


Yegi: Yes.


Jason Rezaian: That was so heavy and all that?


Yegi: Yeah. I don’t think they have more than one in that shitty place.


Jason to Yegi: They had two actually, I used two.


Yegi: Oh, because you were there longer and you have more intel. It was so dirty where they put me that I couldn’t even like walk. I had to like do like this jump-jump to get to a corner.


Jason, narrating: Even though Yegi and I were both stuck in our own solitary shitholes, it turns out our schedules were pretty similar. Almost every day. Yegi and I were taken out of our cells and interrogated, some days more than once. A guard would come to my cell, tell me to put my blindfold on, and lead me down the hallway to the interrogation room. After the first several days, I was allowed to remove the blindfold once I got into the room. What I saw looked like a public school classroom in miniature, with two small chairs on opposite sides of a small metal table and terrible lighting. Unlike in my cell, there was an air conditioning unit. Kazem would put a small Dixie cup of water in front of me. Some days a couple of nuts. Because, as he loved to remind me, “here is not Guantanamo.” Then to start with the questions again. It always went something like this: we found this email, this line in the story you wrote, Kazem would hand me a printout of my own writing with a couple of words highlighted in yellow and insist it was proof I was a spy. First, I’d roll my eyes, and then I try to explain, and then to defend myself. And it all goes nowhere. Basically, if you speak a second language and have a Gmail account, you too could be accused of being a spy. As miserable as those interrogations were, they were the only way Yegi and I could get any insight into the case our captors were trying to build against us.


Jason to Yegi: How quickly did come to your mind that the whole thing, I mean, our arrest and the case against us, was bullshit?


Yegi: It was just so obvious at that point. Like after the 2009 crazy election, some of my own friends sent me emails, like angry emails, about the regime, like a photo of a bus that on the back of the bus said, fuck Islamic Republic—that had nothing to do with you, but they were blaming it on you.


Jason, narrating: Remember, the guys who arrested us had confiscated our computers. They’re going through everything. So now Yegi’s interrogators were pulling up these old emails and telling her that I’d somehow orchestrated them, then trying to get her to repeat their version of events. The accusations, our supposed crimes, were like that a lot of the time, so convoluted, based on such a fundamental misunderstanding of how modern life works, that it felt impossible to refute them.


Yegi: What else? I mean, same bullshit stuff that they kept repeating. Our house was the center of CIA in Tehran. But, what document did they have? Nothing.


Jason, narrating: One of their favorite pieces of evidence against me was a letter I supposedly wrote.


Yegi: They said you wrote a letter to Obama. And I was like, really? Jason did? So show me that/


Jason, narrating: What they had was a cover letter for an online job application to work in the Obama administration that I’d filled out in late 2008. Like a lot of Americans, I was optimistic about Obama so I filled out the application. Me and like 300,000 other people. I never heard back. Another conspiracy theory that they wouldn’t let go of had to do with Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” Remember when it came out? People all over the world made videos of themselves dancing to the song and posted them online. Well, some Tehran hipsters decided to join in. But there was a problem. Just by appearing in the video they were committing several crimes under Iranian law. They all got arrested, six of them. News outlets all over the world covered it, including The Washington Post, which meant I had to write about it, although I thought the whole thing was overblown. Our captors decided that I was the brains behind the whole thing and then grilled me and Yegi about it.


Yegi: And I tried to explain that you were, in fact, the last foreign correspondent who wrote about.


Jason, narrating: Right. I only wrote about it because my editors said I had to. Now I was in prison having to explain the whole idea as if I’d made the video myself. So much of what happens in Evin prison would make you laugh if the guys running the place didn’t take themselves so fucking seriously. So it’s important that I explain who was actually holding us. Usually when we talk about the Iranian regime, we think of it as this monolith, a dictatorship that answers to the whims of one man, the Supreme Leader. It’s not that simple. The many branches of Iran’s government are split up into factions and they try to undermine each other constantly. What it boils down to is that some of them understand that for their system to survive, they have to become more open and responsive to people’s desires. Some of them, though, think that would be suicide. But if you believe in democracy and the separation of church and state like I do, then in Iran, there are no good guys, only bad and worse. We were being held by the worst. The intelligence unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.


[news clip] The Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Iran is both revered and feared.


[clip] The role of the Revolutionary Guards was to protect the ideological foundations and the ideological nature of the regime.


[Reporter clip] Fanatical defenders of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini founded the Revolutionary Guard in 1979.


[clip of reporter] The Revolutionary Guards are often described as a parallel government within Iran.


Jason Rezaian: So the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sounds like this big evil machine, like the Empire in Star Wars. But our experience of the IRGC, or at least its so-called intelligence unit, told us something different. When I asked you what she thought of our captors, one word came to mind:


Yegi: Dumb. But also shameless motherfuckers. Like they are willing to play with people’s life for what they want. And if what they want is super dumb and they are not realizing, it doesn’t matter to them. Anyone with the gun, with a gun is obviously more powerful than the one with no gun. So as long as someone holds a gun on your head and make you sit in a cell or put handcuffs on you or blindfold on you, that makes you in comparison powerless to them.


Jason, narrating: An insurmountable power they hold over you is the only thing they want you to feel. Some people say Islam means peace. Actually, the word means submission. Submission to God is one thing. All these goons care about, though, is submission to their will. Their unofficial mantra is: if you don’t submit, we will destroy you. As much as I detested them, I wanted to see them. Getting interrogated was the only proof that I still mattered. And because my interrogator Kazem was such a quirky and complicated character. They picked Kazem to be my interrogator because he spoke passable English, but he’d unintentionally make the most absurd English constructions. He swore up and down that he was just a lowly police officer. We do this impression of him at home and I’m pretty good at it. He’d say: I’m not top banana. He actually sounded like that. Or in a diatribe against the US and its Middle East allies, he said that ISIS was the “lovechild of Israel and Saudi Arabia.” The love child. I almost corrected him. I could have told him ‘bastard’ sounded way tougher, but quickly realized that if I did, I’d never get to hear this prick talk about a love child ever again. Kazem’s quirks helped to dull the sinister message that he was sent to deliver: that if I didn’t cooperate, I was destined for the noose. And I mean that literally. People get hanged in Evin for offenses that Iran would consider less serious than my supposed crimes, like financial corruption, drug dealing. Kazem would tell me: we’re trying to help you, the last guy got hung, don’t make the same mistakes he did. Kazem never got physical with me, but he had the power to make me feel miserable, even more hopeless than I already felt. A few weeks into my nightmare, he brought me news from the outside about another journalist held hostage, this one in Syria, by ISIS terrorists


[voice clip] This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen of your country. As a government, you have been at the forefront of the aggression towards the Islamic State.


Jason, narrating: He said that James Foley had been beheaded. I had never heard of him, but we definitely had some things in common. American reporters, captured in the Middle East. He also told me that Ferguson, one of what he called “America’s great cities” was burning to the ground.


[news clip] There is growing outrage tonight after an unarmed African-American teenager was shot and killed by police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.


[crowd] Hands up, don’t shoot!


Jason, narrating: It will be months before I had any idea about the police killing Michael Brown and the eruption of Black Lives Matter, or about the rise of ISIS and its gruesome murdering of hostages.


[voice clip] Any the aggression towards the Islamic State is an aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life who have accepted the Islamic caliphate.


Jason Rezaian: Kazem and his band of thugs took great pleasure in American pain, and by telling me about it, he was rubbing it in. But as much as he believed to his core that America was the Great Satan, just like pretty much everyone in Iran, he also fantasized about a life in the US. One day he wanted to know how much someone would have to earn to live well in a good part of America, someplace like Texas, where you could own guns. Yeah, turned out Kazem was a big Second Amendment guy. He even had the chutzpah to ask if I could get him a visa to go to America. I told him, depends on how long you keep me here. A month went by like this, and in that whole time, I had no information about Yegi. After the night we arrived, I didn’t see her again. I had no idea where she was or what they might be doing to her. It was terrible. I couldn’t sleep and I knew things were really bad when I realized that I had no appetite. And I love to eat. Not only did I miss her, but I also knew she was only there because of me. We were leading separate lives inside the same prison. We didn’t know when or if we’d ever see each other again. On the 35th day with very little warning, that changed. Our 35th day in Evin prison started like any other. For Yegi, that meant not one, but two interrogation sessions.


Yegi: I had one interrogation session from 9:30 to 12:30. Then they would send me to my cell for lunch. Again, I had another interrogation that day from 1:30 to 4.


Jason, narrating: Normally Yegi would be abandoned to her cell after that, but this day a guard opened the door one more time.


Yegi: She came back and told me, put your clothes on. So I thought it’s another interrogation session.


Jason, narrating: The guard let her out of her cell and down a corridor. Yegi was blindfolded so she could only see her feet. She realized they were taking her somewhere she had never been before. And she could feel that she was walking on a wobbly metal grate.


Yegi: So I thought to myself, oh, my God, either they are going to open this gate kind of thing and I’m going to fall. Or, do they have crocodile underneath? Is this some kind of a game that they are playing with me? Or maybe Jason is underneath and they’re torturing him and they want me to see that.


Jason, narrating: But I was actually sitting in an interrogation room with Kazem waiting for my wife. He told me Yegi and I would be allowed to see each other, but we couldn’t speak and that Yegi and I were to remain across the room from each other. No touching. I watched as a female guard brought her in. As excited as I was, I was also worried, what if she blamed me? What if she stopped loving me? They sat her down on the opposite side of the room and Kazem told her she could take off her blindfold.


Jason to Yegi: What did I look like?


Yegi: Terrible. I mean, you were wearing baby blue, like pale blue prison clothes, like hospital clothes. Terribly large, ugly plastic, like brownish plastic slippers.


Jason, narrating: I have no idea what I looked like because I hadn’t been in front of a mirror in weeks. But I can tell you, I felt like shit.


Jason to Yegi: Be honest. You were happy to see how thin I was.


Yegi: That’s true. You were sitting and I was not supposed to talk, so I made you stand up, like I made the move with my hand to make you understand that, I want you to stand up. You could talk.


Jason to Yegi: I wasn’t supposed to talk. And I, yeah, I stood up and I turned sideways so you could see my profile.


Yegi: The belly was gone. But what really made me worried was that your eyes were really red. It was obvious that you, you cried a lot. Or maybe you were crying right before I came in, something like that. But also you had these deep, dark circles around your eyes, which made me really worried.


Jason, narrating: I had lost 40 pounds in just over a month. I knew that because I weighed myself every day at the infirmary. The prison food was terrible and there was very little of it. Each morning I’d get the same thing, a paper-thin slice of bread with jam. Lunch would be a tasteless piece of meat with nothing accompanying it. More than anything, anxiety had just killed my appetite. Not sleeping, didn’t help. And losing that much weight that fast felt scary. For the record, even un-showered and in prison clothes, Yegi looked fantastic. She always does. But she was gaunt and she looked so tired. Since we couldn’t touch or talk, we just looked at each other and tried to communicate through facial expressions. We’ll make it through. Be strong. After a few short minutes, the guard took Yegi by the arm. Our time together was over, but as she was being led away, Yegi broke the no talking rule. She blurted out: Jason, I want to have a baby. I just smiled and said: me to. It was the first time either one of us had said that and we both meant it. Kazem took me back to my cell and locked the door. I sat in the corner and I sobbed. What did this reunion mean, where they loosening up on us? Will we be able to see each other more often? Or the opposite—would we be separated again for who knows how long?


Yegi: I was very worried for you. Also very angry the way that they did not take care of you. But also I felt like, I think we have passed phase one. If we have never been through that phase one, they wouldn’t let us to go through phase two, which includes seeing each other. So it was like a positive sign, but not a very positive sign. But still, you want to hold on to it.


Jason to Yegi: Could you even guess at how many phases there might be ahead of us?


Yegi: No, definitely not.


Jason to Yegi: Some weird fucking phases, right?


Yegi: Yes. So many.


Jason, narrating: We never knew when a new phase was going to begin. The changes always came without warning. Something was clearly starting to happen. We were allowed to see each other again a few days later. And then on our 42nd day in Evin a guard came to my cell. Whenever that cell door would open, I’d wonder: am I going home or is this about to get even messier? This time, though, it looked like we were about to enter yet another phase. The guard told me that I was going to court. I hadn’t seen a lawyer. I wasn’t even sure what I was being accused of. I asked them, what does that mean, I’m going to court. I’d been conditioned not to ask any questions, but this guard was one of the nice ones. I think it means you’re leaving, he said. And I think he actually thought that was true. And he added, If we’ve done anything bad or mistreated you in any way, please allow God to forgive us. Two guards led me blindfolded through the same door I had entered 42 days earlier. Outside, several more guys were waiting and they put me in a van. That same morning, one of Yegi’s female guards came into her cell and told her to get dressed.


Yegi: So I asked her if she knows where we are going and she said she can’t tell me. I should not be worried. And I ask if she has heard from you, if you’re going to come with me. She said she does not know.


Jason, narrating: Yegi’s guard brought her outside and led her to the van.


Yegi: Before I got into the van, maybe like one or two step, she whispered in my ear that your husband is sitting in the van but when you get there, don’t say anything because of the male guards.


Jason, narrating: I could tell that someone else had climbed into the back seat but didn’t know who my fellow passenger was just yet. Just that she was she. I could tell that from the sound of her breath. But when she let out a little yelp of excitement and anxiety, I knew it was my wife.


Yegi: It was a hot day and there was so much traffic, they had to, like, go across several different highways to get there. Despite the fact that the van had its shade closed, I could still see that we’re going downtown.


Jason, narrating: Yegi knew where we were going. We were headed to the special court just for cases against journalists: the Press Court. It’s just a few steps from the entrance of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, one of my favorite places in the world, the site of so many joyful days over the years reporting, shopping, tours guiding, and enjoying long lunches with friends.


Yegi: I could smell myself, and I was wearing those dirty, smelly outfits in pale pink or pale purple, something like that. I was little by little crying, like quietly crying for myself. And this female guard kept saying, it’s going to be OK. She was whispering to me, don’t cry, don’t be upset. But obviously my face was like terrible, dirty with tears and I didn’t have a napkin or anything like that.


Jason, narrating: We pulled into a gated parking lot. Guards got us out of the van and walked us into the back entrance to the court building. I could feel my shoulders hunched over from shame and exhaustion. My hands were shaking with fear. The court was like so many centers of Iranian officialdom: drab with numbered doors and walls covered with photos of bearded senior citizens, the revolution’s leaders. This was our first interaction with the outside world after six shocking weeks that altered who we were. And it was a revelation.


Yegi: First thing I heard was my sister’s voice. And then I turned and I saw my sister, my mom, my dad, a friend of my dad who was a lawyer. And your uncle.


Jason, narrating: We could see them way down a hallway. We hadn’t expected to see anyone we knew that day.


Yegi: My sister was shouting. My mom is screaming, my dad was passing out. And then little by little, and you and I were like shaking and we don’t know what is going on. And my sister’s screaming that “we are proud of you guys.” Like, what is going on?


Jason to Yegi: Yeah, I mean, I think of it as kind of a chain reaction. It’s like, oh my God, you know, my daughter is a skeleton and my son in law is not a skeleton, but he’s lost 40 pounds. I mean, I had been very nervous that you’re your mom especially would blame me for everything that happened. And that just wasn’t the vibe at all. I mean, it was like I could stop worrying about that after that.


Jason, narrating: Seeing family again after all that time was incredibly soothing, but it was obvious that had not been our captors’ intentions. This wasn’t supposed to be a family visit. But one thing was clear, our families hadn’t forgotten us or given us up for dead. The Iranian government never told our parents we died in a car crash. That story was just another lie they’d been telling Yegi and me to make us crack. Eventually, the guards brought us in front of a judge, and while I didn’t want to get my hopes up, I thought it was possible that we were about to be released. But no, we were being indicted, which meant the judge had to tell Yegi and me the charges against us.


Yegi: I had to admit that I’m your wife. That was my charge. Cooperating with the U.S. spy as a member of his family, marrying [unclear], like a stranger, outsider, that has like a really, really humiliating connotation for both of us, as if you married a whore or something like that. You married an outsider who is forbidden here.


Jason, narrating: The charges against me were basically matters of fact. I worked for the paper of record in the U.S. capital, which meant my words could end up on the president’s desk. In the twisted logic of my captors, of course that made me a spy. To them, it didn’t matter that I was an American citizen because my dad was born in Iran, I had Iranian citizenship too. And to them that’s all that counts. There is no recognition of dual citizenship. I had no consular rights. I belonged to them. I asked the judge to release us on bail and he said, no. He said the investigation was still ongoing. We were allowed to say goodbye to our family and then we were headed right back to Evin. By lunchtime, we were both back in solitary. Later that day, Yegi and I were hauled back to the interrogation rooms and we started to see just a tiny crack in the facade. Kazem drilled me on the encounter with our family and from his tone, it was obvious that it wasn’t supposed to go that way.


Jason to Yegi: I remember going back to prison and my interrogator and your interrogator coming that afternoon very angry, you know, as if we pulled some kind of strings and I mean, but it changed the circumstances. And I just want to know how you think it affected the path of what they were trying to do to us.


Yegi: It affected what they were planning to do to us, or at least affected the fact that they were trying to keep us in darkness.


Jason, narrating: They wouldn’t be able to keep us in the dark for much longer. As I’d find out later, there were lots of people working to free us. Including:


Mary: What’d you say Jason?


Jason Rezaian: I said, are we recording?


Mary: I had no—oh, we’re rolling? OK.


Jason, narrating: A sometimes sweet, sometimes feisty Midwesterner in her 70s: my mom, Mary Rezaian.


Mary: Does anyone want to ask me what I had for breakfast?


Jason Rezaian: We don’t have time for that. I’m kidding.


Mary: Avocado.


Jason, narrating: Suddenly, this widowed grandmother had a whole new job: figuring out how to spring her kid from jail in a foreign country controlled by a hostile regime. That’s next time on 544 Days.