Stop Deaths in Prisons, Protect the Right to Life
19 November 2020
The right to life is sacred and the most fundamental right. Protection of human life requires both the protection of a human being’s physical and psychological integrity. The right to life, therefore, is under absolute protection. Article 17 § 1 of the Turkish Constitution, Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights enshrine protection of life. All the rights pertaining to maintaining a person’s existence in healthy physical and psychological integrity are absolutely valid for each individual held in prisons. Yet prisoners face biological and psychological destruction, along with the fact that incarceration is itself oppressive, through subjection to numerous rights violations while their right to life is not protected.
Moreover, problems faced by sick prisoners gradually deteriorate and no healthy solutions can be put forth. According to data collected by İHD in its statement of March 2020, there are 1,564 sick prisoners, including 591 in critical condition, in Turkish prisons. Our data further show that this figure has gone up. İHD, however, is aware of the fact that the number of sick prisoners is well above its findings. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Justice has not been sharing any data about sick prisoners. There are numerous obstacles before sick prisoners’ access to healthcare. These include but are not limited to: over-crowded wards, delayed transfer to infirmaries, delayed transfer to hospitals or none at all, examination in handcuffs in hospitals and infirmaries, prevention of the exercise of the right to open air, delayed opening and premature closure of ventilation doors, non-hygienic rooms, transfers by single-seater compartmental transfer vehicles that impair a person’s physical and mental health, non-heated and humid rooms, malnutrition, no access to diet food, problems in access to clean and hot water, insufficient number of medical doctors and other healthcare staff in prisons, holding prisoners who cannot maintain their lives on their own in solitary cells and the like. The conditions of prisoners who face numerous similar problems have been deteriorating each day and their health conditions have become chronic and multiple.
The COVID-19 virus was first seen in December 2019, while the first case was reported to have been seen in Turkey by the Ministry of Health’s statement on 11 March 2020. The pandemic that spread rapidly claiming the lives of thousands of people has also threatened the lives of prisoners while the conditions in prisons have further become alarming due to insufficient measures and shortcomings in the distribution of hygienic material and protective equipment. The Ministry of Justice’s Directorate General of Prisons released a report on prisons during the pandemic on 8 November 2020. According to the report, positive cases were seen in 117 out of 368 prisons, 120 positive prisoners were under treatment in healthcare facilities while, according to data provided by chief public prosecutors’ offices, 10 convicted prisoners have died of chronic illnesses and two convicted prisoners have died due to COVID-19-related immunity system complications since 14 March 2020. COVID-19 proves to be fatal precisely for those with underlying chronic conditions.
Law No. 7242, which went into effect on 15 April 2020 on the grounds of the corona virus, set forth an unequal practice particularly for sick and elderly prisoners while the law terminated the principle of equality by holding those incarcerated under the Anti-Terror Code in prison and releasing others. Four critically sick prisoners older than 70 years of age have died in prisons in the aftermath of 15 April 2020.
49 prisoners have lost their lives in Turkey since the beginning of 2020. It has also been claimed that 15 prisoners committed suicide. Allegations included the battery of Kadir Kurt in prison, while traces of battery were identified on Serkan Tumay’s body and the investigation into the matter is pending. The relatives of both prisoners have lodged applications before İHD. The Ministry of Justice stated that four prisoners, whose identities were not disclosed, died of COVID-19. One prisoner was found dead in his bed. One prisoner was released on the day he died at a hospital where he was referred to because of his critical condition. Five prisoners with terminal cancer died soon after they were released. 16 prisoners lost their lives due to critical conditions while three of them died in quarantine wards in prisons where they were being held after their return from hospitals. It was learnt that two prisoners also died of COVID-19.
A great majority of sick prisoners cannot go to hospitals because they do not want to be held in quarantine wards. Along with the fact that they cannot survive on their own, it has been reported that in some prisons such quarantine wards were repurposed from cell-sized rooms by prison administrations, they were not hygienic, and too cramped to breathe with low ceilings. It is clear that such quarantine wards, where sick prisoners are held for 14 days after their return from hospitals, pose a great risk.
The high prevalence of suicide cases, particularly among ordinary prisoners, reveal the intensity of rights violations they are subjected to and the fact that conditions in prisons infringe upon the inherent dignity of the human person. Authorities need to take preventive measures in such suicide cases, improve the conditions that drive people to suicide, initiate investigations into those involved in acts of violence, and to eliminate the reasons thereof. Driving a person to suicide is a criminal offense that is proscribed under Article 84 § 1 of the Turkish Penal Code (TPC). Moreover, third parties cannot commit an act that would damage the interest of a person by violating their bodily integrity; this is a criminal offense under Articles 81, 82, 84, and 87 of the TPC.
All these mortality cases were in fact preventable. Authorities should take necessary measures to prevent such cases in prisons, which are on the rise and became prevalent, grant the right to access to healthcare, and thoroughly provide all conditions in line with the inherent dignity of the human person to protect bodily and psychological integrity of persons. The Human Rights Association urges authorities to protect the right to life without exceptions that is guaranteed under both domestic law and international conventions and covenants, and to take all necessary measures to this end. Moreover, prisons should be made available for the monitoring of civil society organizations. İHD also calls on the Human Rights and Equality Institution of Turkey, the Ombudsman, and the Human Rights Inquiry Committee of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to operate their monitoring mechanisms more effectively, and on political parties to take on more initiative about this matter.
Human Rights Association
Central Prisons Committee