The statements of a former inmate who was held in the same prison as Mustafa Kabakçıoğlu, a former police officer who was found dead in a COVID-19 quarantine cell, detail the unsanitary conditions of the facility and the inhumane treatment the inmates had to endure.
Speaking to Bold Medya on condition of anonymity, the former inmate, who spent three-and-a-half years in Gümüşhane Prison, told in detail about how the dismal conditions led to serious health problems and how prison guards mistreated the inmates and ran a criminal ring.
According to his account, the air quality in the prison was extremely bad. The entire facility was heated by a coal-powered system that didn’t have proper filtering, and as a result, the inmates would be covered with soot when they went out to the courtyard. “In winters, it literally snows soot. Even if you are allowed in the courtyard, you have no chance to use it. You are covered in black. The snow is covered in black,” he said.
His story helps explain the conditions that led to Kabakçıoğlu’s death. In his diary Kabakçıoğlu tells of a snowy day when he went out for some air in the courtyard and passed out once he came back to his cell. He suffered from asthma, and his health was adversely affected due to heavy air pollution.
Kabakçıoğlu’s condition worsened by the day, yet the prison authorities did not provide proper medical care despite his written requests. He had developed diabetes while serving his sentence and reportedly lost 40 kilos. Shortly before his death, Kabakçıoğlu was placed in a quarantine cell on suspicion of having contracted COVID-19 after he had a heavy cough. A post-mortem COVID-19 test came back negative.
The inmate said the quarantine cell where Kabakçıoğlu died is located right where the heating system’s exhaust is placed, under the chimney. “If they cared about health, they would have chosen the administrative blocks for the quarantine cells. … Coronavirus is a respiratory disease; how can you put a suspected COVID-19 patient there? One cannot even breathe there,” he said.
Kabakçıoğlu was a decorated police officer. He was arrested in July 2016 and was summarily dismissed from his job in September 2016 for alleged membership in the Gülen movement. He was sentenced to seven years, six months in prison.
The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, of masterminding a coup attempt in July 2016 and labels it a terrorist organization. The movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.
Following the coup attempt, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency and launched a massive crackdown on followers of the Gülen movement under the pretext of an anti-coup fight. Over 540,000 people were detained on terrorism-related charges, more than 80,000 were arrested or imprisoned, and in excess of 150,000 public servants, including 4,156 judges and prosecutors, were removed from their jobs for alleged membership in or ties to “terrorist organizations.”
The massive purge led to an overcrowding of Turkey’s prisons and exacerbated rights violations.
The former inmate said they had to sleep with the windows open because of the overcrowding. Due to the poor air quality, this led to serious health problems. “I contracted chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] in prison. Others also developed the same disease. … This place is not suitable for a human being in terms of health. It should be closed,” the former inmate said.
COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease characterized by long-term breathing problems and poor airflow from the lungs.
In two reports published in August, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) highlighted the overcrowding problem, saying: “The problem of prison overcrowding remained acute … A large number of inmates in these prisons did not have their own bed and had to sleep on mattresses placed on the floor. Moreover, in some living units, prisoners were even obliged to share mattresses, as no floor space was left for additional mattresses.”
According to the CPT, the problem can only be resolved by adopting a coherent strategy “covering both admission to and release from prison, to ensure that imprisonment – including pre-trial detention – really is the measure of last resort.”
The former inmate also talked about how their medical needs were deliberately ignored and how all their petitions requesting improvements in prison conditions were rejected. “They do everything in their power to help other inmates imprisoned for non-political crimes. When it comes to those detained on charges of membership in the Gülen movement, we are treated as if we are lepers or plague-stricken. As a result of maltreatment in hospitals, we end up not wanting to go at all,” he said.
When asked about torture, the inmate told the story of a prison guard named Sinan heading a group of guards called the “destruction team” who was in charge of beating unruly prisoners. “I heard that he beat up a former military officer staying in another ward. The officer complained, but the chief public prosecutor dismissed the case, covertly encouraging Sinan, who engages in other criminal activities such as smuggling drugs inside the prison and selling them through his criminal ring of guards and inmates,” he said. According to him, Sinan was arrested on those charges but was later released due to a lack of evidence. He still works in another prison.