Denis O’Hearn is a professor at the University of Texas who has conducted extensive research not only on Turkey’s network of F-type prisons, where primarily political and Kurdish prisoners are held in conditions of isolation, but also on other carceral detention regimes throughout the world, including in the US and Ireland. He spoke to Medya News’ Matt Broomfield to share his insights on how this system relates to the continued detention of Kurdish political leader Abdullah Öcalan, and what his research can tell us about both the Turkish detention regime and resistance to that regime.
What are the particular features of Turkey’s carceral system that make it worth highlighting?
It’s only recently that Turkey has become such a vast carceral system, following on the rise of mass detention in the US and some other places. In particular, the move from simple detention to isolated imprisonment has been an important feature of the Turkish system. Turkey now has 400 prisoners per 100,000 people. Turkey is now the second-highest imprisoning country in the OECD, behind the US, which since the 1980s has been by far the world leader in putting people in prison.
Turkey began a project of political imprisonment, of left-wing prisoners, and not necessarily against the Kurds. But of course there has been, since 2003, this massive turn toward political imprisonment. The overwhelming number of prisoners, particularly, who are kept in isolated imprisonment, in the F-Type prisons in particular, are Kurdish political prisoners.
What can your research on Irish political prisoners teach us about Turkey’s prison system?
There’s been a long background, and a real learning process with other countries. In particular, I’ve done a lot of work on the imprisonment of Irish political prisoners in the 1970s and into the 1980s, leading up to the hunger strikes of 1981. Irish political prisoners were held not only in isolation in the infamous H-Blocks outside Belfast but they were held without any reading material, without writing material, without clothing, kept naked in their cells.
I think there was an attempt to figure out, where did the British government go wrong in the way they were using this form of imprisonment as a form of punishment, and as a way of trying to break a movement. Whenever the Turks were trying to move away from a more ward-style prison, with a number of people in a single big room, into an F-type prison with isolation, around 2000, they did an operation called, ironically, ‘Return to Life’. The prisoners took an action against that, with the European Court Against Torture and claimed they were being held in coffin cells. In response to that, the Convention against Torture in Europe brought in as an expert not a human rights expert, but a man called Gordon Lakes, who had been the governor of the H-Blocks in Northern Ireland.
How does this new prison system link to Öcalan’s imprisonment?
These were forms of trying to create a prison system that was out of sight and unknown, and that does have a relationship certainly to what is happening to Öcalan. The idea is, if we put someone in an island outside of the country, out of sight, out of mind, nobody’s going to care very much, and we can get away with anything we want to do, in that kind of situation. Another example, of course, which was long before Guantanamo or Imrali, is Robben Island, and the idea that we take political prisoners [like Nelson Mandela] and put them out in the ocean so they can’t be seen.
Have methods developed to isolate Öcalan affected Turkey’s carceral system as a whole?
The international body now looks at Turkey and sees it as one of the two or three worst governments in the world in terms of the imprisonment not just of political prisoners, but anybody who speaks out at all about conditions in the country.
Öcalan’s detention is the thin end of the wedge, or the top of the iceberg. Partly because there have been international campaigns or concerns, and because he’s such a powerful and popular leader of the Kurdish movement, people are aware of Öcalan and the situation – but he is the extreme end of the whole system of isolated political imprisonment.