Fire isn’t Turkey’s biggest problem when it comes to prisons


Recent events in Turkey have shed a critical, if heated, light on the prison system in Turkey. On Saturday 16 June, several inmates of the Urfa prison set their bedding on fire in protest of the prison’s extreme overcrowding. Thirteen inmates were killed, and five others were injured as a result of the blaze. The next day, the prison erupted in further protests both from inmates furious at the death of their compatriots and the family members of the inmates anxious for news of their loved ones. The prisoners banged on their windows and doors while chanting anti-government slogans. Prison officials responded to the anxious family members with pepper spray and tear gas.

Turkish authorities including PM Erdogan himself tried to cast off the fires as an argument among convicts, but BDP officials insist the blaze at Urfa Prison, infamous for the number of political prisoners that it houses, was an active act of protest against the disastrous conditions of the prison. Saturday’s events sparked a whole series of protests and fires at various prisons across Turkey, and Urfa Prison itself saw a repeat incident in the juvenile ward that injured 42 inmates. 40 prisoners were expelled from the prison as a result.

Similar protest fires were reported at prisons in Osmaniye, Antep and Kürkçüler on Monday, and in Karaman on Tuesday.

The fires have been reported on in the mainstream international media, and some are finally asking the right questions about the state of Turkey’s prison system. Urfa prison, where the fiery protests began, was built to house only 250 inmates, but over a 1000 people were allegedly imprisoned at the time of fire.

Turkey allegedly plans to build 169 prisons in response to the dramatic overcrowding of their current institutions. But with so many of Turkey’s Kurds locked away in Turkish prisons, the state of the entire Turkish prison industrial complex is also a Kurdish question. The buildings that hold thousands of Kurdish prisoners are overcrowded and poorly ventilated. The European Council Committee for the Prevention of Torture has formed a delegation to investigate the state of Turkey’s prisons for itself at some point this week, although it had already planned to visit Turkey within the year.

The committee’s results will likely bring further attention to facts that Kurds are already keenly aware of. As victims of Turkey’s racist and draconian anti-terror laws, Kurds are disproportionately represented in the Turkish prison system. Even if 1000 prisons were added instead of 169, the fact remains that many of the people who are housed in them are housed unjustly. Rather than fuel further criminalization of its civilian population and build its economy on oppression, Turkey must go through with more radical reforms that promote justice at all levels rather than superficially addressing a symptom of a larger problem.