The Civil Society Association in the Penitentiary System (CISST) kicked off its two-day international conference entitled “The Pandemic and Prisons” in Istanbul on Saturday.
The conference attracted human rights advocates, legal professionals, researchers, and prison experts from various countries. The opening speech was delivered by Prof. Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincancı, the president of the Central Council of the Turkish Medical Association and a forensic medicine specialist.
Addressing the challenges faced during the pandemic, Fincancı emphasised the vulnerability of those fighting for rights. She highlighted the discriminatory policies implemented by the Turkish government towards incarcerated individuals during the pandemic, stating that the sole protective mechanism further isolated those already deprived of their freedom.
She pointed out that the pandemic significantly affected prisons, with a high number of deaths being ignored. “We witness 10 deaths per week, but we act as if nothing is happening. … We must fight effectively against human rights violations in prisons. The Justice Minister reported the first death in a prison on 8 April 2022. Prison employees were also isolated. From the moment of arrest, we faced a series of violations,” she said, having herself spent over two months in prison after publicly challenging Turkey over the use of chemical weapons against guerrillas.
Berivan Korkut, Advocacy Coordinator of CISST, said that pandemic triggered discussions about prisoner impoverishment, as being quarantined for 14 days became a form of punishment. She also noted that the strict isolation prevented individuals from seeking necessary medical care, as prisons were completely cut off from the outside world due to quarantine.
Charline Becker, a researcher focused on reporting human rights violations, presented the situation in French prisons during the pandemic. Becker stated that there were more than 70,000 prisoners during this period saying, “Interventions came too late. … Despite complying with the criteria, very few people were released. Unfortunately, the Justice Ministry did not take any further action. Visits were suspended starting from March. Those who protested were prevented from being released. Only phone calls were allowed, and each call cost 40 euros per person. However, some cells already had telephones. Shared phones in the corridors were used, and people waited in the hallways, which was unhygienic. Many people became ill. We realised that civil society organisations were not prepared for such a crisis.”
Alessio Scandurra from Italy discussed the situation in the Antigone prison. Scandurra mentioned, “The system was not prepared for any emergency. They did not care about what was happening in prisons, but serious incidents were occurring. Ten thousand people contracted covid-19 in prisons.”
Maryia Kvitsinskaya, a member of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and a human rights advocate, highlighted the significant issue of disabled prisoners during the pandemic. Kvitsinskaya stated, “They concealed many data and violations. Therefore, current data could not be obtained. Trials were conducted online, but prisoners could not express themselves.”
The conference concluded on its first day with lawyer Çiğdem Kozan from Association of Free Lawyers (ÖHD) highlighting the challenges faced by women prisoners, particularly during the pandemic. She emphasised the lack of access to sunlight leading to increased risks of osteoporosis among women. Kozan also pointed out the difficulties women face in accessing healthcare due to examinations being conducted in the presence of male guards. Additionally, she mentioned the problems with accessing sanitary products, despite a decision having been made to provide them for free.