A prison fire last week that led to the death of 13 inmates and a string of subsequent fires -- all set by prisoners protesting the conditions they are living under -- have led to a debate about the state of Turkey's jails and just why the country has such a fast-growing prison population.
Saturday's fire, which took place in the southeast Turkey's Sanliurfa, was apparently set by a group of prisoners protesting their overcrowded conditions. Since the fire in Sanliurfa, prisoners in at least three other jails started protest fires. According to Turkish reports, dormitory-style cells in the Sanliurfa prison that were built for 12 were housing 18 prisoners, forcing the inmates to sleep in shifts. The prison itself, which has a capacity of 350, was holding over 1,000 inmates at the time of the fire.
As the Hurriyet Daily News reports, the overcrowding is indicative of Turkey's rapidly-rising prison population:
The number of prisoners has increased to 132,000 from 69,000 over the last 10 years even though Turkey’s penitentiaries only had a total capacity of 125,000 people as of April 2012, according to information provided by Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin.
Over 36,400 prisoners are detainees awaiting trial while over 95,600 have been convicted. The legal process of one-fourth of the convicted has not been concluded as their appeals are being heard at the Supreme Court of Appeals, according to statistics.
At the Şanlıurfa prison, only 200 of the 1,000 inmates have been convicted.
Many inmates and their lawyers have sent petitions to human rights organizations complaining about overcrowding in prisons.
But do all these people really need to be behind bars? That the question writer Nicole Pope asks in a column in Today's Zaman:
If crime has risen to such an extent in this country, serious studies should be carried out to find the roots of the problem and policies introduced to address them. Turkey’s average per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has increased significantly in recent years, but income is very unequally distributed and in terms of social justice, the country has the worst record among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations. This may well be a factor of rising criminality.
But aside from an increase in felony convictions, thousands of people have also been arrested on political charges in the past two-three years, on evidence often flimsy, if not downright bizarre, such as the case of Mehmet Tahir İlhan, a porter who is deaf, unable to speak and illiterate, but who has been charged with supporting terrorism based on his possession of half a lemon, which can apparently be used to mitigate the effect of pepper gas. Incidentally, when the families of the Şanlıurfa prisoners gathered to protest the prison fire, they too were met by policemen using pepper gas.
Detainees are not the only citizens of this country whose lives are needlessly lost. In May alone, 67 people died in work accidents. What happened to the focus on the rights of individuals that the AKP had promised? The power balance may have shifted in Turkey, but human rights, including the right to life, which is the most fundamental right, are still not protected as they should be.
In response to the fires, the Turkish government has said it plans to build 169 more prisons. But it appears the prison problem Turkey is facing goes deeper than one of simply having enough space to house everyone who's being detained.