Democratic Turkey may at times be touted as a model for the Middle East to follow, but, when it comes to Turkish prisons, there is little that ranks as exemplary, rights watchdogs say.

Since 2001, Turkey’s prison population has increased by a whopping 124 percent, and stood at 124,677 prisoners as of October 2012, according to national prison administration data cited by the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), a British research institute. Not all are convicted criminals; many are detainees awaiting trial.

Official data puts the occupancy rate at 88.4 percent at 373 prisons across Turkey, according to the ICPS.

International observers and representatives of non-governmental organizations say they don’t have regular access to Turkish prisons. Thus, it’s hard for them to evaluate prison conditions, according to Emma Sinclair-Web, an Istanbul-based researcher for New-York-based Human Rights Watch.

Healthcare has emerged as an “endemic” problem, she added. “The procedures for getting them [sick prisoners] out of prison and into the hospital is very slow … and even contributes to the deterioration of their condition at times,” Sinclair-Web said.

Turkey in September concluded a nearly four-year, 4.2-million-euro (roughly $5.5 million) prison-reform project, funded by the Council of Europe and the European Union. The initiative focused largely on the training of prison staff, including 450 prison healthcare workers, but its concrete effect on prison healthcare has not been examined.

At first glance, it would not appear to be large. In early November, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, citing Ankara’s international obligations, called on Turkey to provide prisoners with “timely access to adequate health services.” It termed Turkish prisons “overcrowded,” and called on the government to construct new facilities.

An Ankara University political-science doctoral student who has extensively studied the country’s prison system, argues that maintaining “fear” is a major reason for the lack of reform. “The purpose of imprisonment is to change ideas,” said Eren Bu?lal?lar. The authorities do not have motivation to create “good prisons because [they think] people would not change.”

While they heatedly insist that they do not imprison people simply for having different viewpoints, representatives of the Justice and Development Party-led government do not often comment on the prison issue. Repeated attempts by to contact the Ministry of Justice’s General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Houses for comment about conditions in Turkey’s prisons were not successful.

A 30-year-old woman released recently from Ankara’s Sincan Prison echoes the observations of Sinclair-Webb about prison life. Nuriye Gulmen, a university research assistant, spent three and a half months in “small-group isolation” with two other detainees on charges of belonging to the militant left-wing Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front. She was released for lack of evidence.

Gulmen, who described relatively spartan living conditions, claims that prison officials did not give her cellmate any medicine when she began to have an allergic reaction that made her body swell. But they allowed her to see a doctor. “They [said] ‘We ordered the drugs. It will come tomorrow,’” she related. “But it didn’t and days passed.”

A proposed bill before the Turkish parliament would authorize the release of sick prisoners, but Turkish Medical Association President Ozdemir Aktan notes that many of those kept in prisons have not yet been sentenced, and, so, cannot be released. The Turkish Medical Association has proposed that the legislation cover detainees and those awaiting sentencing as well, he said.

Turkish prisons themselves remain “by no means close to European standards,” Atkan added.

Editor’s note:

Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

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