If nothing else, the prison construction frenzy in the last several years by the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Turkey is enough evidence by itself to suggest that the current rulers of the nation are intent on cracking down on rights and freedoms, muzzling criticism and stifling dissent by putting critics and opponents behind bars en masse.
The ambitious yet sinister program of upgrading and expanding prisons across the country was undertaken by the government on the calculations that the inmate population would increase dramatically in Turkey. When asked, officials declined to provide details on how they arrived at these predictions other than saying the crime rate is soaring, prosecution is better, and they are clearing backlogged cases. That is not a real answer and does not explain why the crime rate is on the rise and the backlog is growing despite purported clearance.
The answer lies in the systematic campaign of imprisonment by the government, whose partisan prosecutors overwork day and night to detain anyone deemed a threat to the autocratic regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. That led to an unprecedented squeeze on the prison system on the back of the already broken and grossly abused criminal justice system. It is not only prominent journalists, human rights defenders, leading dissidents, intellectuals or political opposition figures but even ordinary citizens, housewives, people with disabilities and high school students who are being detained by the police in large numbers just because they shared a photograph, posted a message on social media or ran a food drive to benefit a congregation in their neighborhood.
The charges are all the same, ranging from being a member of fictitious terrorist groups to espionage, from coup plotting to smearing public officials — classic symptoms of authoritarian governments. In most cases, government loyalist prosecutors simply Xerox the same charge sheets for dozens or even hundreds of people detained arbitrarily in their offices and homes. Since this practice led to the swelling of the inmate population, the already crowded prisons are not enough to accommodate everyone despite throwing additional beds in small prison cells and even converting bathrooms into cells.
The government’s secret plan to increase the prison population was actually discovered by a delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) during their visit to Turkey on June 9-21, 2013. The visit came right after the countrywide Gezi Park anti-government protests during which many were arbitrarily detained and charged.
The delegation’s report, later published on the Council of Europe (CoE) website, said “the authorities planned to bring into service 207 new prisons (with an overall capacity of some 125,000 places) by the end of 2017, thereby increasing the total capacity of the Turkish prison estate to some 245,000 places.” It also noted the government expected the size of the prisoner population to increase to 180,000-190,000 (an incarceration rate of some 250 people per 100,000 inhabitants). The delegation questioned Turkish officials on the spike in the inmate population and how they came to the large figures for the future. The answer was the same as mentioned above.
Well, the government has beaten expectations and reached the 2017 target of having some 180,000 people incarcerated in early 2016. As of today, the inmate population stands at 181,580. This represents an increase of 206 percent over the 2002 figure, which was 59,429 when the AKP came to the power for the first time. In just 18 days between Jan. 13 and Feb. 1, some 2,000 new arrivals to prisons were recorded by the government. Perhaps the plan is working better than the government originally envisaged.
The Justice Ministry’s response to the 2014 petition by the Civil Society in the Penal System Foundation (CİSST), an advocacy group for prison reform, further verified that plan. The ministry said 199 new prisons with a capacity of 119,000 places will be constructed by the end of 2017. Mustafa Eren, the president of CİSST, says there is clearly a plan to increase the prison population to 270,000 by next year and the government is building larger prisons to accommodate that. Eren points out that there is no huge spike in crime rates that justifies such an increase. He also believes the government’s claim of better prosecution and investigations in detecting criminal activity as an explanation is far from convincing.
Worse, the simple figure of inmate population does not give the whole murky picture. One has to add the number of people who are released on probation based on good behavior, pending trial or those who have less than one year left in the remainder of their sentences. The overall figure according to the Justice Ministry for these is 320,509. Therefore, the real picture is much more worrying than what the nominal numbers on inmates tell us.
Moreover, the government has often used conditional release — originally intended to reduce overcrowding, encourage compliance with the laws and elicit better behavior for reintegration — in recent years as a way of punishing opponents, especially journalists, in place of the much-criticized pre-trial detention by requiring them to report to a police station every week, banning them from traveling abroad. Hence many people are actually living in an open prison in Turkey with their freedom to move and travel being severely restricted. The goal is to intimidate critics, force them into self-censorship and scare others from expressing critical views.
In addition to building large penitentiary campuses comprising several prison establishments, the government has also been encouraging the ill-treatment of political prisoners who are thrown into prison on a government-led witch hunt because of disagreements with or criticism of the Islamist rulers. They face heavy punishments such as long solitary confinements, severe limitations on outdoor exercise and out-of-cell activity, prevention of professional work and lack of access to the library and media. Urgent medical attention was denied in some cases while regular preventive healthcare services are not rendered to inmates who require medical treatment. Their visitors also face abuse, including humiliating strip-searches, degrading treatment by prison guards and arbitrary refusals to visit and speak to their loves ones in prison.
It remains to be seen to what extent the resilience of the nation will put up a fight in the face of this massive and unprecedented assault on rights and freedoms.