You know the story: An American student found himself in the “Turkish prison system” while trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey. Parker portrayed a kind of hell on earth in this movie. I do not think he exaggerated the physical conditions. My only objection to his film is the fact that there are no good Turkish men in this film. In fact, there were many good people in the 1970s in Turkey -- novelists, poets and filmmakers; they were all in prison for their opposition to those in power.
The second movie, which portrayed even worse prison conditions, was shot by Yılmaz Güney, a Zaza-Kurdish film director who himself had spent much time in prison. He shot his film “Duvar” (The Wall) in France, where he was a refugee. In “Duvar” you witness the horrific physical conditions in which prisoners were held. They were constantly beaten; they were denied food and clothing; they suffered from the cold and so on. When you see the film you feel terrorized by the level of violence and human suffering. Unlike Parker’s, in Güney’s film there are so many good people who all suffer from state-inflicted terror. At the end the inmates revolted.
When I talked to lawyers in Şanlıurfa on Sunday, I felt as if I was watching Güney’s “Duvar” once again. One of the dormitories in a Şanlıurfa prison caught fire on Saturday night, and 13 young people (ranging in age between 20 and 25 years old) lost their lives to the flames or suffocation. The president of the bar association said to me that inmates lit their dormitory on fire out of anger and frustration. They had been living under shocking and inhumane conditions for a long time. The water ran four times for an hour. The prison population was three times bigger than its recommended capacity. Since there were not enough beds, they were sleeping in these beds in shifts in three groups. And the tipping point of the crisis came with the lack of air conditioning in this city, where at this time of year the temperature may raise to 40-45 degrees Celsius. There was apparently only one fan in each dormitory, and there were always fights among inmates concerning its direction.
The president of the bar association told me that they prepared a report about conditions in the Şanlıurfa prison last year, and they listed all these concerns and others to attract the attention of the justice minister. All the people I spoke with in Şanlıurfa said the revolt was not at all a surprise to them. The Ministry of Justice portrayed the incident as a fight between inmates, whereas lawyers indicate that this fire was the direct result of a revolt. Prisoners put their beds behind the doors to prevent the entry of the guards into the dormitory, and they died in the fire, which went out of control. Some lawyers also told me that they had made complaints to the Ministry of Justice on behalf of the prisoners about the poor conditions in this prison. However, the justice minister pretended to be unaware of these inhumane conditions in the prison, and he explained that the overcrowded prison population was a temporary situation due to unexpected transfers from other prisons to Şanlıurfa. This explanation is in stark contrast with the statement of the lawyers, who said that these poor prison conditions had existed for a long time.
On July 19, while writing this article, the justice minister held a press conference and said that his ministry will build many new prisons across the country to solve these problems. He did not explain whether the people who created a man-made hell in Şanlıurfa would be held accountable; how he would make sure from now on that prisoner complaints would be taken seriously and their voices heard; whether prisons would be open for inspection by civil society organizations and so on. In short, I could not hear any word from him indicating that the “system” -- the “mentality” that crated all these problems -- would be seriously questioned and changed. It is really very sad to witness in 2012 in Turkey that inmates had to revolt to get their voice heard about the inhumane conditions in which they are held.