Herman Schwartz is a professor at the American University law school in Washington, DC and is a contributing editor of The Nation magazine. In late March he visited Turkey on behalf of Helsinki Watch to investigate prison conditions in that country. He has done similar missions to Poland, Cuba, Czechoslovakia and Brazil. Ömer Karasapan and Joe Stork spoke with him in Washington in June 1989.

Your mission was to look specifically at prison conditions?

The purpose of the Helsinki Watch project, of which the Turkish trip was just one element, is to bring the issue of prison conditions to the forefront of the world human rights agenda, not just with respect to political prisoners but for non-political prisoners as well.

What impressed you most?

On the negative side, what struck us again and again was the continued and widespread prevalence of torture. It was routine, refined and brutal. The fact that in a civilized country — and Turkey is a civilized country, a country that prides itself on not being like Iran or Syria where these ghastly practices are a matter of course — this kind of thing can continue, and quite routinely, not only with respect to political prisoners but to other prisoners as well, this was extremely disturbing. The accounts and descriptions we heard were so common that the government must take responsibility for it.

“Refined” is not a word that you usually use as an adjective with torture….

“Refined” here in the sense that the methods of inflicting pain have been developed to a high degree. One of the purposes is to hide the evidence.

The second thing that struck me negatively was what seemed to me an absolutely outrageous set of penalties under very, very vague statutes, designed to strike at criticism. While we were there, we heard of the responsible editor of the magazine 2000 who got six years for publishing a translation of a Helsinki Watch report on the treatment of the Kurds, and of someone who got some sentence for reporting that the president had obtained an apartment at very low prices for his two daughters. The statutes talk about “propagating values that are contradictory to Atatürkist values.” That is just an open invitation to pick up anybody they don’t like.

The third thing that also struck us negatively was these huge lengthy trials that go on years and years. Somebody might be acquitted after three, four, five years, and yet will have sat in jail during this entire time.

Those seem to me all things that a government that wants to clean up its act certainly can do something about. The torture is simply too pervasive. We didn’t take statistics, we don’t know numbers. We just know that again, and again, and again, people from many walks of life talked about experiencing this. I think that our judgement about the pervasiveness is objective, sound and well-based.

Two positive things struck me. The air of freedom, of people talking and publishing. We were there at the windup of what seemed a very hotly fought election. We were told that if the Motherland Party got less than 30 percent, it would be a stinging defeat. It got 22 percent. Related to both the repression and this election was the almost casual heroism of the people we met. In Turkey, you don’t say and publish the things we heard and read without paying a price in insecurity and risk. Yet people are almost casually willing. And then they go to prison, in very unpleasant surroundings.

I guess another impression is that the Turkish prisons are not the hellholes they have been painted in the popular media, like the movie Midnight Express. They may have been under the military, but I gather that has changed, at least for the political prisoners. We have gotten indications, though, that things have not changed that much for the non-politicals. Newcomers are still beaten up when they come into the prisons, which is not that unusual in the prison world, to make them know who’s boss. There is a particularly cruel approach taken to hunger strikers. They are given nothing, no sugar water, nothing that would sustain them.

Were you able to get some figures, official or otherwise, on the numbers of prisoners, political and common?

The latest numbers we have are something like a total of 50,000. The February 1989 issue of Info-Turk puts the number of detainees in 639 Turkish prisons and detention houses at 49,315. Of these, the justice minister referred in a recent speech to some 3,500 “anarchists.” This total was lower than the number we had for political prisoners by about 1,500. I think it does not include a journalist like this woman who published the translation of the Helsinki Watch report. The going estimate for political prisoners is 5,000.

In terms of the 50,000 — is there anything anomalous about that on a per capita basis?

It comes to approximately 99 plus per 100,000. England is almost as high, but most other European countries fall much lower, in the 40s and 50s range. By European Community standards, which the Turks want to join, they’re quite high.

What’s the US?

The US is huge, close to 300 per 100,000.

Could you say a little about how you conducted the mission?

First we contacted the Turkish government. I wrote approximately a dozen letters in December and January to various officials, starting with the president and working down to local prosecutors — it’s my impression that the prosecutor is the highest official in charge of a prison — asking to be admitted to prisons. We then visited the Turkish embassy here. I received almost no responses. The embassy told us they thought there wouldn’t be a problem. As the time approached for our visit, we’d heard nothing official.

So what we did is what I’ve done in the past: very, very intense, quite lengthy interviews with ex-prisoners, pursuant to a six-page outline of questions that I’ve worked out over four or five missions. Depending on what the person has to say, and on how new the information is, the interview can last from a half hour to three hours. We probe to get specific details of that person’s experiences. I follow an order, which is first the physical conditions and then the health care. Physical conditions include such things as crowding and temperature, sanitation, hygiene, food, clothing, shelter. Then I move on to health care. Then I move on to abuses, authorized and unauthorized. And then I move to inmate relations — violence, is there an inmate self-government? And then I turn to outside contacts — visits, mail, that kind of thing. Then to activities — work, recreation. Then remedies, what people do to protest. And finally after-effects: were you harassed afterward, what was your health like afterwards?

I don’t rely on somebody saying, “I heard that somebody was beaten up.” If I hear that enough, I will write down, “We were told that people heard….” But normally I will ask, “What did you experience, either you yourself, or what did you see or hear?” Or “Why do you believe that person? What makes you think that you got the straight story?” We try for very specific details: If you were hit, with what were you hit? Fists? Feet? Sticks?

How many people did you talk with?

There were scores. There were three of us and we split up.

Maybe 50 altogether?


These were both political and…?

No. The only people who would talk to us are political prisoners, partly because the others have nothing to gain from talking to us and a lot to lose. For all they know, we could be police spies. Many of them may still be in whatever it is that got them into trouble in the first place, so what’s the point of talking? In all my trips, the only time that I talked to non-politicals is if we get into the prisons, as in Cuba and Brazil. I ask again and again, “What do you know about the treatment of non-politicals in this respect, and how do you know it?”

Where did you speak to people? Just Istanbul and Ankara?

Yes. But people were brought from different parts of the country.

You had made formal requests to get into the prisons. The government knew you were there.

They unquestionably knew we were there. Then on Thursday we were invited to go see Minister Ali Bozer, at about 5:30 or 6:00. We had arrived on Saturday, and were going to leave on the following Sunday. This was in Ankara, and we were flying back to Istanbul that night for two more days of very intensive interviewing. We were told we might be allowed into one prison on Friday or Saturday. I said that I did not find this acceptable. I did not want a show trip on the last day or next to last day, on no notice, with no indication of which prison it would be, so that we wouldn’t have known whom we wanted to see there. We gave them an opportunity to let us in and they didn’t take it until the very last minute, at an inconvenient time. It turns out also that it would have used up a whole day to get there because it was to be a prison in Bursa, and we would have only a few hours there, the first hour of which would have been spent drinking Turkish coffee with the prison administrators. If they would let us visit prisons and talk to inmates, officials and others, and to see the prisons the way they should be seen, I would be quite willing to do a follow-up report to the report that I’m now writing.

Did you get a sense of great discrepancies between the different prisons that people were in, in terms of conditions?

What we have been told by more than a few prisoners — which matches my experience in the United States and elsewhere — is that prison regimes vary depending on the warden. We were told that regulations under the August 1988 directive, which have been terribly controversial, and which are supposed to have been sort of suspended, are being enforced in part by some wardens and not by others. Some wardens give special diets to those who need it. Others do not. It does seem that there has been a significant change in the physical abuse since the changeover from military to civilian rule. Some people say they don’t see it as significant, but I got the impression that it is.

You said that one of the areas you inquire about is inmate self-government.

Among political prisoners, it’s meaningful. A representative does in fact represent. The impression I got — somewhat self-serving, I admit, because these were all political prisoners talking about themselves — is that the political prisoners and their representatives worked very hard to improve conditions for everybody, including themselves. The representatives who aren’t political prisoners, we understand, tend to be part of the prison corruption, which is very serious. Guards are paid very little. Until just recently they worked 12-hour shifts, now they’re on eight-hour shifts. There’s no training. With all that, you’re going to get tremendous pressure for corruption. It’s in such things as food, barbershops, prostitution. We’re told that female prostitutes who come in as prisoners are either forced to or choose to ply their trade.

Were women among the people you interviewed?

Quite a few. We got the impression of quite similar conditions except for beatings. I didn’t hear much about knocking around women. There may be somewhat less torture of women. But my sample is so small that to make a judgement on that is unwise. One woman told us she was not tortured; she was 65 years old. Another woman told us in graphic detail that she was; she was 23.

Why did Helsinki Watch choose to visit Turkey?

We visit countries where we think we can do some good, and where local people are eager for us to come. Poland was the first one — this was June 1987 — because it seemed like one of the more open repressive regimes. We went to Brazil because the Brazilian human rights group — a lawyers’ group which has quasi-official status — felt we could make a difference. We have actually. They’ve closed one place because of us.

My role in this is a fairly specific one. My work in the past has been on prison problems, and domestic American civil rights, civil liberties, public activism. I’ve been brought into this project for my prison expertise, and my general human rights background. We are an advisory committee to Helsinki Watch — I’m chairperson of a committee of eight or ten other people who are fanning out around the world to look at prison conditions.

How to cite this article:

Ömer Karasapan, Joe Stork "Prison Conditions in Turkey," Middle East Report 160 (September/October 1989).

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