By Oya AktasJustice Ministry Admits to Overcrowded Prison Conditions
In the aftermath of the July 15, 2016, coup attempt, attorneys and human rights NGOs have barraged the Turkish penitentiary system with criticism, leveling allegations of maltreatment, denial of access to sufficient food and medical care, and overcrowded conditions. Last week, a government report to Parliament’s Human Rights Inquiry Committee corroborated some of these claims.
According to Gerçek Gündem, Deputy Minister of Justice Basri Bağcı presented the Parliamentary Human Rights Inquiry Committee with issues that the Turkish penitentiary system faces. His report included maltreatment, overcrowding, and undue burdens caused by prisoner transfers to distant locations.
The presentation indicated that in 2016 before July 15, there were 344 reported cases of disciplinary action being taken against personnel for prisoner maltreatment. From July 15 to December 31 there were 89 such cases, and from January 1 to May 9 there were 194.
The presentation also reported that there are approximately 221,607 prisoners in Turkish penitentiaries. The extended capacity for Turkish penitentiaries was supposed to be 203,000, but the current number of inmates exceeds this maximum by 9 percent. There are plans to create a capacity for 11 thousand inmates by the end of 2017. There are 76 penitentiaries under construction, 113 in projecting stages, and 18 more that are being planned.
Deputy Minister Bağcı also acknowledged that especially in eastern Turkey, many prisoners are held in penitentiaries far away from families and loved ones. As of this year, Diyarbakır will begin new prison operations in order to ease this burden. The Ministry of Justice is working on transferring these prisoners closer to their hometowns.
Expounding on one of the symptoms of overcrowding, Deputy Minister Bağcı explained that in some penitentiaries, prisoners have to sleep in shifts to be able to share beds in a rotation, though he also expressed the belief that the ordering of new beds was helping to ameliorate sleeping conditions. Bülent Sarıoğlu reported in Hürriyet that Deputy Minister Bağcı stated, “Crowded conditions are our biggest issue. The criticisms are correct. Over the weekend, the prison receives two thousand prisoners. If a hotel chain were to receive an influx of two thousand people at once, even they would have serious problems.”
Human rights groups have been working to bring visibility to prison conditions, especially in the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt of last year. In December, a UN rapporteur relayed testimonies from inmates and lawyers indicating that “torture and others forms of ill-treatment were widespread” in the days and weeks following the failed coup. The lawyer of imprisoned journalist Ahmet Şık reported that Şık was denied water for three days by prison officials.
In protest of these prison conditions, HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been jailed since November, went on a hunger in a strike in March in solidarity with other inmates who had been on a hunger strike since in February. Demirtaş’s strike lasted less than 24 hours, as prison officials agreed to open dialogue to discuss prison conditions that Demirtaş was protesting, namely “unlawful” and “inhumane” practices in the prisons, including “extensive torture.”
The presentation by Deputy Justice Minister Bağcı indicates the government’s awareness of the validity of concerns over prison conditions.