Turkish gov’t accused of turning prisons into enterprises, exploiting inmates’ labor: report

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The Turkish government has been accused of turning its low-security prisons, where more than 60,000 inmates are employed in revenue-generating jobs for very low wages, into enterprises with little or no budgetary oversight, the Stockholm Center for Freedom reported, citing Deutsche Welle Turkish service.

According to official data from the prison workshops administration of Turkey’s Ministry of Justice, 60,767 inmates working in more than 180 job categories produced revenue of 4.6 billion Turkish lira ($778 million) in 2019, although only 2 percent of that revenue was paid to the inmates. The ministry claims the inmates are employed for the purposes of rehabilitation and vocational development; yet, human rights organizations say the situation on the ground suggests otherwise.

Didem Sağlam of the nonprofit Civil Society Association in the Penal System (CİSST) says they don’t know if the ministry conducts any research regarding the number of inmates who use the vocational skills they developed in prison after their release.

According to Sağlam inmates are paid between 14 to 17.75 lira a day depending on their skills, significantly less than the minimum wage, which is 71.8 lira a day. “Since the labor laws stipulate that employees cannot be paid less than the minimum wage, one wonders where the rest of the money goes,” she says.

Besides the actual payment, the inmates are also deprived of the social security benefits that are legally required to be provided to employees such as pensions. Mustafa Eren of CİSST says, “Even if you stay in prison for 20 years and work full time during that period, you still can’t retire.”

According to Eren in order to stay in low-security prisons where they have better overall conditions and are allowed to take one week of leave three times a year, inmates are legally required to work. Areas of work include those requiring back-breaking labor such as the construction of new prisons and courthouses. Others include various sectors like agriculture, manufacturing (e.g., textiles, furniture, personal accessories, cleaning products) and tourism.

Inmates work for a public or private sector employer, after an agreement is signed between the prison workshop administrator or the chief public prosecutor of the province where the relevant companies/agencies are located. The lack of effective control and audit mechanisms has led to allegations of corruption.

In a letter to CİSST, an inmate said prison officials push them to work under poor conditions without due care to occupational safety because part of the profit is distributed among them. The inmate claims that prison officials receive 60 percent of their wages.

Sağlam says it is very important to know the selection criteria of the private companies employing inmates. According to Eren, besides an internal audit system, the prison workshops need to be audited by the Turkish Court of Accounts (Sayıştay), the agency responsible for auditing the public sector to ensure fiscal transparency.

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