Human Rights Watch warned that Turkish government plans for a new prison regime may violate international standards.

In a statement released today in Ankara, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that an isolation regime currently in place at Kartal Special Type Prison in Istanbul may be a prototype for other prisons currently under construction around Turkey. The organization stressed the potential physical and mental harm to prisoners who are kept in solitary or small-group isolation--a regime that severely limits the range of human contact and the variety of activities and environment to which a prisoner has access.

The rights group's statement this morning came after organization representatives conducted a week of meetings to discuss the government's plans with Ministry of Justice officials and representatives of foreign governments and civil society. Human Rights Watch welcomed its discussions with the government and urgently pressed for greater transparency surrounding government plans to reshape Turkey's prisons.
The Turkish government has set in motion plans to begin housing prisoners in cells for up to three prisoners, moving away from the use of the existing sixty-person wards that have been plagued by violence and abuse committed by both prisoners and security personnel. Eleven new "F-Type" prisons consisting exclusively of small-group cells to house detainees convicted of organized crimes and crimes under the Anti-Terror law are currently under construction. They are expected to be completed in the coming months.

Ministry of Justice officials promise that the new F-Type prisons will improve conditions in prisons and bring them up to international standards. Human Rights Watch cautioned, however, that unless the new system includes plans for prisoners to spend time out of the cell units for recreational, social, and vocational activities, it could violate human rights.

"In principle, the move to cells could improve prison conditions," said Jonathan Sugden, Human Rights Watch researcher. "But without opportunities for prisoners to leave the cell unit, the new system could amount to an isolation regime that will cause prisoners mental and physical harm. We would oppose any such move."

The Turkish government's plans for running the new prisons have been shrouded in secrecy and Ministry of Justice officials told Human Rights Watch they were still working out the details. "Unfortunately, the government's silence about its plans has led many to assume the worst," Sugden stated.

It is widely believed that the new "F-Type" prisons will be run like Kartal Special Type prison in Istanbul. Prisoners and ex-prisoners of the Kartal facility and their families describe an extremely restrictive regime at the prison. Most prisoners typically sit in their cells alone or in the company of three to six other inmates, for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with limited activities, stimulation, or exposure to the outside world.

International prison experts have determined that such a regime may seriously endanger the mental and physical health of the inmates and amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in violation of international standards. Human Rights Watch's request for permission to visit the Kartal facility was not granted.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to provide prisoners with details about the regime to which they may be transferred and reiterate to the prisoner population its unambiguous commitment to operate the cell system humanely and in compliance with international standards. In order to restore confidence in Turkey's troubled prison system, the group also recommended that these plans include arrangements for nongovernmental organizations to enter and monitor Turkey's prisons regularly.

The Turkish government's plans for its prisons could bring criticism in international human rights bodies at a time when the government is trying to improve its international image. Considering the proposed cell system during a visit to Turkey in 1997, the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture concluded that "in the absence of a significant improvement in activities for prisoners, the introduction of smaller living units will almost certainly cause more problems than it solves." Last week, the United Nations Committee Against Torture criticized the United States for its use of a restrictive isolation regime similar to that anticipated in Turkey.