Turkey’s prisons house hundreds of thousands of inmates, and according to letters and data collated by journalist Mehmet Kizmaz and shared with Medya News, those prisoners are subject to rights violations at an alarming rate.
According to the Ministry of Justice there were there were 314,502 convicted and remand prisoners as of 31 March 2022, equivalent to 1 per 269 of the population, having increased by a factor of 292% in the decade since 2011.
Some of the most common rights violations centre around communication, with publications, correspondence, access to independent media, visiting rights, telephone rights and social conversation rights withdrawn or severely restricted. But there are other issues too.
There are applications by prisoners to rights organisations in Turkey that are also increasing, with 506 applications made to the government-run Human Rights and Equality Institution of Turkey (TİHEK) in the first six months of this year. While applications to the courts by families and lawyers relating to the rights violations are often rejected, petitions submitted by prisoners are not even processed.
According to the letters and data collated by journalist Mehmet Kizmaz and shared with Medya News, every letter of those collated complained in some way of communication with the outside world being restricted, including the censorship of letters to families, the refusal of the prison authorities to post out letters to journalists, the arbitrary restriction or confiscation of books and magazines, and the shutting off of independent television channels, so that only state television was available for viewing.
Several people also spoke of limitations to the number of books. Gülay Efendioğlu in Kandira Prison in Kocaeli said they were limited to only three books a month, while Yasin Karasulu in prison in Izmir said that magazines were confiscated arbitrarily and that they were not allowed more than 10 books in a cell. Visiting rights are also often restricted as a form of disciplinary punishment, often for the offence of complaining when some other right is restricted, as in the case of Gökhan Gündüz in Izmir prison, who said that they had visiting rights “withdrawn because we asked to exercise our rights to books, publications and social conversation”.
Also, personal items like underwear, socks and towels sent in to prisoners are not passed on to them. Personal effects are seized on the pretext of ‘general searches’ of the prison wards. Veysel Şahin in prison in Bolu complained that, “a group of people who were not even prison staff entered our cells and took away a lot of our stuff, including books, magazines, writing and letters. We were beaten up for opposing it.”
Cells are not properly aired. Murat Kaymaz, in prison in Van, wrote that, “We are not even aggravated life [life meaning life] prisoners, but seven of us including sick people have been held in a one person cell for months on end”, while Gülay Efendioğlu said that in her prison, “Our commodes have been taken away,” and she complains also of the lack of food, and what food there is being “mouldy with maggots crawling out of it,” while Güven Usta in prison in Izmir reported that even “the use of water is subjected to quota”.
One subject currently under discussion by the public in Turkey is the transfer of prisoners to prisons far from their families against their wishes, as described by Resul Kocatürk in Kırıkkale prison, who wrote of “Eighty friends transferred against their wishes”.
Music and conversation
Most of the letters, seen by Medya News, also gave details of social restrictions within the prisons.
Güven Usta again: “We are only granted 3 hours of the 10 hours of social conversation we should be allowed by right. Instead of this, the prison administration has arranged lessons in the Quran. The place is more like a Quran school than a prison.”
Music is similarly restricted in some places, in the form of tapes and musical devices. And Yasin Karasulu in Izmir Prison explained how, “They would not allow me a classical flute which was sent to me, as it was deemed to be, a ‘dangerous weapon’.”