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As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, through the fall and perhaps beyond, we are making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.
Two-year-old Miraz has spent most of his young life behind bars.
His mother, Gulistan Diken Akbaba, is serving a seven-year sentence in Istanbul’s Bakirkoy prison, one of Turkey’s many “closed” detention facilities, for belonging to a banned organization.
Rife with overcrowding, the rooms allocated as nurseries can only be used for two hours a day, a few times a week. Children do not routinely receive baby food, toys, or books, with wet wipes only provided with a doctor’s prescription.
Akbaba, 32, stresses that these conditions have long-term consequences.
“[Children] grow up without having their peers around, without knowing what toys are, without seeing trees, plants, or animals. Many of them suffer from malnutrition. If mothers have to be in prison with their children, then prison conditions must be arranged accordingly,” she said.
Under Turkish law, mothers can keep children under six with them in prison. The only exception is if a mother has been convicted of abuse or murder. Although there are no regulations determining what, if any, services children are entitled to access in prison, many women prefer this option to state care.
According to the Ministry of Justice, 624 children under the age of six currently live in Turkey’s prisons. Children whose mothers are in “open” detention facilities enjoy a little bit more freedom. There, inmates can spend time in vocational training and even make short visits to relatives.
However, more than 500 of these children are, like Miraz, in closed prisons, with very little open space.
Akbaba was first arrested in January 2012 on charges of “membership of an illegal organization.” She was the district president of the now-defunct, pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Founded in 2008, the party was banned in 2014 for alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish government, the European Union, and the United States have deemed a terrorist organization.
Having spent two years in pre-trial detention in Bakirkoy, Akbaba was out on bail until she was sentenced at court proceedings that finally concluded in 2017.
The police came to take her away one Sunday morning as she ate breakfast with her husband and Miraz, then just seven months old.
Unwilling to be parted from her infant son, Akbaba took him with her to Bakirkoy.
Shortly after they arrived at the prison, Miraz fell sick. Akbaba repeatedly asked the prison authorities for medicine and wrote letters demanding better living conditions, but said that she received nothing.
Two months later, she was transferred to Gebze prison in the eastern Marmara province of Kocaeli, where conditions were even worse, she said. Akbaba believes that this move was a punishment for her continuous demands for improvements.
“At one point, I was close to a nervous breakdown,” she wrote in a letter from Gebze.
Many Scarred for Life
Esin Koman, an activist and psychologist who studies how children are affected by life behind bars, said that prison conditions can leave a long-lasting impact.
“Even when they leave penitentiary institutions where they lived with their mothers, children tend to carry the traces of the traumatic incidents they endure for many years,” she said. “They are more likely to experience behavioral disorders like anxiety, crying fits, frustration, self-harming, and so on.”
Koman said that the state must do much more to protect these children and help them develop their physical, social, and emotional skills.
“Although these children are allowed to be with their mothers, their real needs are being ignored,” she said. “The treatment these children receive from the state is incredibly unjust.”
Zeynep Bakir is a former prisoner who was also charged with “membership of a terrorist organization” and for writing opinion articles for a local newspaper.
Immediately after her arrest in May 2013, she was sent to prison in Samsun, a coastal city on the Black Sea. Her son, Poyraz Ali, was then two years old, and she decided to take him with her.
Bakir, who calls herself a political prisoner, was released in January 2018 after serving most of her six-year sentence. She is now trying to live a normal life with her son and husband in Trabzon, a coastal town in the Black Sea region. There, they run a small handicraft shop and sell jewelry and ornaments to tourists.
Poyraz Ali began showing signs of distress soon after they both entered prison in 2013, Bakir recalled.
“He began to behave strangely. His reactions to everybody and every situation were extreme,” Bakir recalled. The boy’s father took him to a doctor outside the prison, who diagnosed him with atypical autism.
The specialist treatment he needed was not available at the detention facility, so the prison allowed him to access regular hospital therapy. However, his mother was not allowed to accompany him, and Bakir said that it was very hard to be separated from her son while he underwent treatment.
As a result, she asked to be transferred to Istanbul’s Bakirkoy prison, a request that was granted four months later in September 2013.
Unfit for Mothers
At Bakirkoy, the prison administration allowed Bakir to accompany her son on his regular visits to the hospital, but the situation was far from perfect. Bakir said there was a lack of food and other resources, as well as none of the special visual and auditory material Poyraz Ali needed to stimulate his mental development.
“There was also a limit to the number of regular children’s books that were allowed in prison; it was far from sufficient,” Bakir recalled.
She and other mothers repeatedly pleaded with the prison authorities and the Ministry of Justice to set up a nursery inside the prison, but it took two years for the request to be granted.
At one point, female detainees at Bakirkoy started a protest over the restrictions on the number of children’s books allowed in prison. This coincided with the failed coup attempt of July 2016 and shortly afterward Bakir, one of the organizers of the protest, was told she would be transferred to Silivri prison.
This facility, in the northwestern outskirts of Istanbul, is where most “prominent terror suspects,” as the state calls them, are held and where most suspects in the coup attempt were also sent.
Since Silivri is a male prison with no facilities for female detainees, Bakir decided to give Poyraz Ali to his father and go to Silivri alone.
She said she did not regret her decision because the conditions in Silivri were appalling.
“There were a lot of security problems, and female prisoners were exposed to sexual harassment,” she said. “During the ward searches, we were all tied up with plastic handcuffs and laid on the floor. There were few female guards, so male guards were also assigned to do body searches.”
Bakir said that, with at least three inmates in each cell, it would have been impossible for her to have her son with her.
After not being able to see him for four months, Bakir went on a hunger strike.
Five days later she was transferred to Gebze prison in Kocaeli where she was reunited with Poyraz Ali.
Since their release from prison, Poyraz Ali has continued to receive special education, but it is hard to tell whether the time he spent with his mother in detention will leave permanent scars on his psyche.
Government officials did not respond to requests for comment on the issue of children in prison.
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