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Overcrowding persists in Turkey’s prisons despite legal reforms, amnesty laws

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An advocacy group that defends the rights of lawyers has stated that overcrowding persists in prisons in Turkey despite several recent attempts at legal reforms and amnesty laws, with the prison population exceeding the figure from before the enactment of a law in July aimed at reducing the number within five months.

The Arrested Lawyers Initiative released an information note on Wednesday regarding Turkey’s corrections system and prison population trends in 2023. According to the report, the prison population, which stood at 231,006 in July, when the law aimed at decreasing the number of inmates was enacted, increased to 232,087 in December, closing the gap and adding to it within five months.

According to the advocacy group, Turkey’s prison population decreased to 213,781 in August, increased slightly to 215,564 in September, further increased to 221,232 in October and rose to 227,332 in November and to 232,087 in December.

It was noted that the subsequent upward trend following an initial decrease in the prison population due to the enactment of a special law on July 14 indicated deeper systemic challenges.

The group said the persistent surge in Turkey’s prison population since the early 2000s despite significant prisoner releases in the years 2016, 2020 and 2023, combined with such systemic issues as flawed penal policy, declining trust in the judiciary and discriminatory practices, underlines the urgent need for comprehensive reforms in the corrections system.

Earlier this week the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) faulted Turkey for the poor prison conditions suffered by eight people who were given less than three square meters of living space in overcrowded prisons in the aftermath of a failed coup in July 2016.

The Strasbourg-based court unanimously ruled that Turkey violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which concerns the prohibition of torture, saying no one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In their petitions the applicants complained about the overcrowding in prisons, where many people were put in a cell far beyond its capacity, forcing some inmates to sleep on mattresses on the floor or take turns to sleep. They also complained about other conditions in prison such as cold food, inadequate hygiene, inadequate toilets for so many people and restrictions including the banning of sports and social and educational out-of-cell activities.

As part of a crackdown launched by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the aftermath of the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, Turkey jailed tens of thousands of people on terrorism-related charges. Most of them were merely critical of the government and had not engaged in any criminal activity.

Turkey remains the leader in the number of prisoners in Europe, according to the 2022 Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics on Prison Populations report. In January 2022 Turkey accounted for over a third of all prisoners in CoE member states and a surge of 369 percent in its prison population between 2005 and 2022.

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has allocated 8.7 billion lira for the construction of 36 new prisons in the next four years, which will significantly increase Turkey’s already high incarceration rate. The number of Turkish penal institutions will increase to 419 by the end of this year with the opening of 20 new prisons. There were 399 prisons in the country as of January 2023.

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