Note from Kedistan: In her previous article, Aslıhan Gençay promised a fourth and final paper with these words: “I wish to share with public opinion and the Ministry of Justice a further article presenting my demands and proposals concerning conditions in prison and the problems which I observed and personally encountered as a prisoner.”
She expressed these demands and proposals in an interview with Ekmek ve Gül. We therefore publish the translation of this interview, as the final element in this series of testimonials.
Aslıhan Gençay is a journalist who spent long periods of imprisonment in different penitentiaries in Turkey; she is one of the women raising their voices against ill treatments and forced strip searches. Today, she is released on probation but cannot forget what she lived through in prison and what she witnessed there…
In your opinion, is torture a practice in Turkish prisons?
In my opinion, although we no longer come across the savage tortures and eliminations that were practiced in the 90s, more “refined” policies, so to speak, are now used as planned methods of intimidation, submission, harassment in order to ’tame’ the prisoners. Their aim is as follows: having them understand matters so very clearly that they will do everything in their power so as not to be sent back inside.
Given everything I lived through myself and all I witnessed, I can easily provide the following analysis: I think the Ministry of Justice carries out a faulty policy against the prisoners – one aimed at taming them, teaching them to obey, playing at both priest and torturer toward them. The torturers are the administrators in certain prisons while the priest, of course, is the Ministry of Justice. For instance, when I was in the Sincan prison (Ankara) in 2016, the administrators of the establishment made a list of prisoners, political as well as common-law, who stood up for their rights, who stood up to the administrators. Then, as soon as the prison in Tarsus was opened, they deported all of us over there.
Conditions in the Tarsus prison were terrifying, no different from hell, the establishment was like a torture center. This was a deliberate policy implemented in order to crush rebellious prisoners. Everything you can imagine was forbidden, with no logic involved, and the staff were permanently aggressive. Disciplinary sanctions flew, the prisoners suffered every day. It was as if we had to start all over again from zero, we had to obtain the most basic human rights through resistance, even for something like hot water. At last, those who were capable of resisting did so, held on and what was happening in Tarsus was brought up to the light of day.
And what happened afterwards? The Ministry of Justice, as if it was not aware of anything happening in this prison, sent inspectors, had the prison inspected and some of the leaders and torturing civil servants were moved elsewhere.
Today we learn through Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, deputy of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) that similar instances occur in Silivri prison N°2 (Istanbul). The aim is in persecuting prisoners, as much as possible during these few months, to work on their unconscious. My advice to all prisoners subjected to persecutions – their relatives who hear me can pass on my words to them – you must resist, you must hold on. You can be sure of it, all this persecution is not carried out because we can’t hear your voices, it’s a systemic policy. Hold out, resist, do not give up on your rights and on your obstinacy, even in the most blind of cells, so that these practices will end.
Garibe Gezer was also subjected to ill treatment, to sexual aggressions, her voice was raised in vain. How did you feel after her death?
Garibe’s story broke me, in the fullest sense of the word. Isolation drives you mad, and an overcrowded blockcell leads to fights and illnesses.
I think that for Garibe, the fact that she was a woman resisting, meant the system attempted to tame her, to break her down through isolation. She was subjected to all kinds of things, but that was not accidental. I repeat, I think it is part of a deliberately implemented policy.
According to what I know, there is a program of “rehabilitation of radical elements” that the Ministry of Justice carries out jointly with Spain. Spanish prison administrators explain to our own which policies they use in prisons in order to “rehabilitate” ETA members, and there is also a joint working group. Garibe was a woman with an obstinate character, resistant and radical and this is the reason why she was never taken out of isolation, they constantly attempted to make her yield, they pushed her beyond her limits.
She made her first suicide attempt in full knowledge. She thought that if she died, there would be interest for the violations of her rights and, unfortunately, she was right. She played the guitar, she did embroidery, why would she want to kill herself? What happened in fact was that the administrators of the type F Kandıra prison N° 1 pushed her to commit suicide through their practices of intimidation, and through the insistent crushing down through isolations.
I lived through that psychological state of mind in the closed prison of Sivas, despite my experience and my level of consciousness. I was placed in a cell that was like a dog kennel, alone, isolated from everyone and everything. I was constantly told that I would never manage to get out of there and, at one point, I even believed it. That mental state is worked on in detail, it is a total tactic leading to collapse: “no one can help you, you have only one solution, obedience and subordination.” In order to overcome this psychological condition, I had to display a very strong will. This is why I understand Garibe so well, that I can feel for her with all my heart. Had she survived, I could write all this to her, I could tell her “hold on for a bit more, it will end”. When I heard of her death, I was petrified, to such an extent that I was unable to cry, my breath was taken away from me. While I was attending to my daily routine, she was all alone, subjected to what I had experienced before her, and I had been unable to do anything for her. As a journalist, I will do everything in my power for justice. Let’s not forget, isolation is a torture, isolation drives you mad, isolation kills.
What did you witness in prisons?
- Imagine women living under a pile of concrete and iron, in blocks designed for 10 but in groups of 20 or even more. Single toilet facilities for all. Isolation destroys the mind, but the overcrowded cell blocks lead to fights. And indeed, fights break out very often. This cramped lifestyle in which intimacy is suppressed creates first and foremost mental and psychological problems. You might say “there are the promenades in prisons…” Yes but, in type T prisons for instance, they are so small that you make the round in five or six steps. So, how can some 20, 25 women, some of whom are incarcerated with their children, cram into such tight spaces?
- In overcrowded quarters, the situation for women with children is awful. The normal routine of the other detainees who naturally wish to watch television, listen to music, sing, discuss, becomes a real hell for the women with children. The overcrowding problem must be resolved before everything else, because it falls on people like a psychological suffering. Moreover, it also causes a number of problems of hygiene and health.
- Another important problem involves the delays in the procedures between arrest and incarceration, up to the first hearing in the trial. Even if the trial ends in an acquittal, the women find themselves with a prison sentence. This waiting period can last at least 7, 8 months. And this practice is also used, consciously I think, in the framework of “taming” policies.
- During that period, women awaiting their fate in a climate of worry, fear and stress cannot communicate correctly with their family, companions and children on the outside. Because the prisoners are incarcerated in prisons located hundreds of kilometers away from their home and their family. This is indeed another very important problem and one more serious still for young mothers, because they are separated from their children on the outside, and for good. The economic crisis adds further difficulties. For example, a woman whose home is in Istanbul is deported to Tarsus prison, some 950 km away. The matter isn’t simply settled with trip from Istanbul to Tarsus. The prisons are built far outside the towns. In order to reach them, you must find your own means of transportation, a collective transporter where it exists, or a taxi…There is also the return, the meals, the overnight stay… In the end, families must spend a fortune for the visits. And all that for what? For a visit lasting a maximum of 45 minutes, currently reduced to 30 minutes! Naturally, the prisoners feel obliged to tell their families “don’t come, don’t spend all that money just for a half-hour.”
- The common-law detainees worked in “work homes”, usually in textile. During the pandemic, they constantly sewed coveralls and masks. They also handle the cleaning in the establishment, distribute the meals to the staff and to the quarters, manage the canteen, and also work in other sections such as the infirmary or a tea corner. Almost all the burden of the prison rests on the back of common-law detainees. Despite the fact they leave for work in the morning and come back at 5 in the evening, they are paid a monthly salary of 200, 250 Turkish lira (equivalent to 14, 15 euro) and of course, have no social security. This amounts to serious exploitation. The women know it, but so as not to remain 7 days out of 7, 24 hours out of 24 in the stuffy atmosphere of the overcrowded quarters, and in order to cover a minimum of their financial needs, they truly wish to work. In the “closed” prisons of course, only “deserving” prisoners, selected by the administration, can work. As for “open” prisons, work is mandatory for everyone there, whether you want it or not.
- Concerning hygiene and health, as I said earlier, in the overcrowded quarters, illnesses thrive. You can be very clean and cautious, you still cannot avoid illnesses. Prior to the Covid pandemic, the new prisoners were directly assigned to the quarters, without any preliminary health control. Cases of hepatitis, eczema, vaginal infections, fungus, but also lice and mange… For instance, in Tarsus prison, an infestation of lice spread out into all the quarters, and proved impossible to eradicate for months.
- Access to the infirmary is problematic in many prisons. A generalist comes to the prison, once or twice a week for one hour. And there are hundreds of requests for an infirmary visit…Under these conditions, only selected prisoners can go to the infirmary. If, following this visit, a transfer to the hospital is required, the problem increases. Transfer to the hospital can last for an hour, an hour and a half. You cover this distance handcuffed, in a cellular vehicle called a “Ring” that looks like a coffin. The air inside the vehicle cannot be controlled, it’s either hotter than in hell, or your teeth chatter from the cold. Many women don’t want to go to the hospital so as to avoid this suffering, and attempt to ease their pains with temporary solutions, painkillers…Personally, I always tried to avoid going to the hospital and always came back from it feeling worse than when I left.
There are other problems in the hospital itself… The soldiers attempt to witness the consultation, you are refused the removal of handcuffs…
- In many prisons, books sent from the outside are not accepted. In some, they are accepted but on a quota system: you are entitled to a maximum of five books per quarter, in some prisons the quota is ten, this all depends of the administration’s good will.
- Disciplinary sanctions are another of the major problems. You can be subjected to a disciplinary sanction for a word, depending of the intentions of the leaders and of the officers responsible for the application of the law and its protection (İKM).. According to the ruling of the Ministry of Justice, the “military tally” which is contrary to human dignity was abolished but it is still imposed in a number of places. When I was deported to the prison in Tarsus, for five days, morning and night, I was disturbed for my refusal of this practice. Because of imposed disciplinary sanctions, prisoners cannot access their rights to liberty under custody, this is another problem. Currently, we are informed that the councils do not authorize liberations even if the detainees are not under disciplinary sanctions.
- Searches are conducted in different ways. If it involves a “detailed search”, all your personal items are searched. Objects that are normally authorized, for example, two pillows, may be removed during the search. Searches are like electric wires, under high tension. .
- Every month, prison administrations distribute hygienic products and napkins to the detainees. But the ministry does not provide credits for this and requires the administration to handle these expenses out of their own budgets. And in fact, it often happens in many prisons that the administrations limit the distributed products. Some only distribute javel water and sanitary napkins, others detergent only… On this topic, there is no fairness between establishments, nor any kind of coordination.
- I also note that prisoners who wish to pursue their studies are not treated equitably from one establishment to another. It happens that study books are not provided or again that examination dates are passed on too late, etc.
What other difficulties do prisoners experience while in custody or after sentencing?
In the last five years, in five different prisons, I came across as many women who had been subjected to torture by ISIS, women who were attempting to survive in prison with their newborn, women who did not speak a single word of Turkish, women who were illiterate, and women who were totally ignorant of their rights.
The children saddened me the most. I must say that on the part of the State and of kind people, there is a certain aid for the babies and the children in prisons. Just about all of their vital needs have been thought of. But that changes nothing to the daily reality of the child living in a prison block. Even if there are daycare centers in the establishments and if the children attend the centers during the week, their life is still spent inside a prison block. Consequently, all the difficulties and problems experienced by their mother reflect psychologically on them also.
In Tarsus, we had a baby from Afrin, Lilaf. There was a baby in the quarter, but no crib… The girls made a kind of improvised crib with ropes and sheets. And one day, our baby fell from this crib on to the concrete floor, and on her head. Only after this accident did we manage through our cries and pleadings to obtain a stroller. And this was exceptional, just for Lilaf.
There are many conditions designed to smother the women. So-called “leisure” activities are forbidden for political detainees, we can only go to the sports hall once a week for an hour. The women are terribly bored. And if there is a disciplinary sanction, this sole opportunity is also suppressed. The detainees are entitled to one weekly phone call for 10 minutes duration. Yes, but what can one say, exchange, in so little time? The more the mothers choke on their tears, the more the children choke and cry…
When I became aware of the stories told by the common law detainees I observed that most of them had been pushed to committing various offences and crimes for which they were incarcerated, especially drugs, by men. Their husbands, their lovers had accustomed them to drugs, then moved them over into the sales, etc. Then, the women pay the price. The criminal field is a zone where gendered social inequalities grow as in an avalanche, and it is too easy to accuse the women by concentrating solely on the act committed, independently of the conditions and context. But the reality is almost always different. Socially gendered inequalities imposed on women are unfortunately ignored in the law.
HUMILIATION, ILL TREATMENT, DISCRIMINATION MUST STOP!
What needs to be done to stop these ill treatments and violations of rights?
- In my opinion, most of the people imprisoned are condemned for offences that did not require an incarceration. Those who are imprisoned for their sharing on social networks, for example. They say that in Turkey freedom of expression exists, this is not true. I personally met those who were in prison for sharings on Twitter, Facebook…Although they are freed at the end of the judiciary process, in general, they stay in prison, awaiting their trial for at least seven, eight months, in order to be “tamed”. This is a policy. Persons making use of the right to freedom of expression must not be in prison.
- My second important demand is about the transfer of detainees toward prisons located in their place of residence, close to their family. Because under current conditions, even if family visits are authorized, their relatives cannot come to visit.
- Sanctions of cellular isolation must be suppressed. Especially following Garibe Gezer’s deaths, this is more than necessary.
- Administrators and penitentiary staff are in urgent need of training in human rights and democracy, because many of them think they are the Minister of Justice in person and are allowed to persecute the detainees. Although it is not part of their duties to judge and to punish people for their cimes, they do so without batting an eye, with prejudices and demeaning qualifiers. For example, they can address themselves to the prisoners, qualifying them of “terrorists”.
- The quotas dealing with books and clothing must be raised. Anything that can allow the detainees to feel better in order to learn, enrich their life, educate themselves, must be open to them. Books and clothing are not threats to security!
- Three medical doctors, working 24 hours out of the 24 should be appointed in each penitentiary establishment. The current practice of family doctors, available in two or three establishment for two hours, one or two days a week, must be dropped.
- Coffin-like “Ring” vehicles used for hospital transfers and other transfers must be retired and replaced with minibus-type vehicle allowing the detainees to breathe and to be moved in way respecting their human dignity.
- Humiliating practices such as the introduction of soldiers in medical examination rooms, medical exams while handcuffed and “mouth searches” must be eliminated.
- All rulings must be brought into conformity with human rights and democratic norms so as to eliminate persecution by ill-intentioned administrators.
- Instead of humiliating practices such as “strip searches”, X ray equipment and detectors should be placed in all establishments and searches conducted in this manner.
- Detainees receiving training must have the possibility to study and to pass their exams, and their manuals must be provided immediately.
- Women with children should never be incarcerated…
For other “Prison Notes”, follow this link.
Aslıhan Gençay was born in 1974 and obtained a diploma from the Economic and Administrative Sciences Faculty of Izmir’s Dokuz Eylül University. Because of her identity as a leftist opponent, she was imprisoned for 10 years in 1992. She still bears the sequels of her “fast to the death”, hunger strikes, carried out in prisons in the year 2000. Following her liberation for health reasons, she began working as a a journalist. She wrote for the Radikal, Milliyet Sanat and edited the art and culture pages in Özgür Gündem. In 2016, a reprieve by the European Court of Human Rights was annulled and she was re-imprisoned for five years to carry out the rest of her sentence in the prisons of Sincan (Ankara), Tarsus, Kayseri and Sivas. She regained her freedom in May 2021. She is currently a chronicler for Davul Gazetesi and editor for an NGO.
Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges
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