A tale of 24 hours behind bars

A tale of 24 hours behind bars

Nuriye Akman (right) speaking with an inmate at the Ankara Sincan Women’s Prison where there is a general feeling of apartment building life.

November 14, 2011, Monday/ 16:02:00/ NURİYE AKMAN

I entered the Ankara Sincan Women's Prison on Nov. 3 at 2 p.m. and left the following day, Nov. 4, at around noon. I received permission from authorities at the Ministry of Justice to spend 24 hours with these female prisoners. The visit was planned for a wing of the prison decided upon by prison management and was to last from 4 p.m. on one day to 4 p.m. on the next day. At 4 p.m. on the dot, I set foot in the prison's H-4 wing and spent the night there. Since I was able to use my time well, my work was actually done by noon the next day. It had been a jarring experience for me, and I wanted to get away from there as fast as possible.

Veteran journalist Nuriye Akman shares her experience in one of Turkey’s notorious prisons: the Ankara Sincan Women’s Prison. As Akman visits the prison cells that have become home to feelings such as social isolation, guilt, anger and remorse, she lent an ear to dreams of freedom and shared them with Today’s Zaman

In wings in the women's section resemble two-story homes, with six 10.5-square-meter rooms on each floor. In other words, 12 people live in each home. The rooms can stay open all day long. And there are baths and toilets in every room. The flushing mechanisms on the toilets have been removed as they were using too much water. Two days a week for a few hours there is hot running water. Each room is decorated according to the tastes of its occupant.

Every room has a tiny balcony. The prisoners can see each other's balconies, the prison yard and a part of the sky above the walls. The prisoners can wash their own laundry in tubs, and then hang it from their balconies. When blankets need to be cleaned, though, they are sent out. Irons are not permitted in the rooms.

The shared living space is 125 square meters, and the prison yard is 90 square meters. The floors are cement, and there is barbed wire that runs along the top of the walls. The doors open at eight in the morning after a head count and stay open until dark. The lights go out in the wing at midnight. As long as a prisoner's room light is bothering no one else, she may keep it on for as long as she wishes.

People who can afford it may have both refrigerators and televisions in their rooms. Also, they can listen to a 24-hour central radio broadcast. Food, drinks, cleaning items and personal care items cannot be brought in from outside the prison. But money can be placed in prisoners' accounts. Prisoners are allowed to spend no more than TL 200 a week on whatever is sold in the cafeteria, electronic items excluded. The cafeteria has on sale a 37-centimeter television for TL 190 while a radio is priced TL 26. A plastic table is TL 40, and a tea set is TL 90. All find buyers.

Rarely do prisoners take their meals together. In general, they eat alone in their cells. Almost everyone here seems to have a best friend from among the other prisoners. It is like apartment building life, where residents of individual apartments do not spend every moment of their lives together. The night I spent in the wing, we ate together, with the prisoners pushing together the tables from their cells. Newspapers were our tablecloths. And the prisoners in the wing fixed a great salad on a steel counter, using shared ingredients. I procured the snacks and drinks that we were to have at tea time from the cafeteria. We chatted until midnight. The floors are stone, and since the space is large, the two radiators there were insufficient for heating. We were really cold.

'There is no justice here'

What a twist of fate it was to encounter this piece of news after emerging from my 24 hours in prison when I stopped by the Sincan Courthouse: On the night I was in prison, a prisoner named Korhon Çalış, held in the men's section, committed suicide by hanging himself with a sheet. The unfortunate man left a note behind saying, “Mother, there is no justice here.” The note also named the person he said was responsible for his death.

The prison management does not accord much respect to the whole concept of the “wing master.” Since one person taking on a position of authority in the wing can ultimately turn into that same person using this superior status to pressure others, the prison management does not wish to see any leaders emerge. Of course, this is the system in the new types of prisons, but the reality of the “wing master” no doubt continues in the old types of prisons, where everyone lives in the same rooms. One of the women I spoke with in this prison told me about how she got her cigarettes and tea by cleaning up for someone else while spending time in an Antep prison.

On the condition that they maintain good behavior, prisoners are allowed to work in prison ateliers. Daily wages for work range from TL 6.25 for experts, TL 6 lira for qualified workmen and TL 5.75 for apprentices.

One job, for example, might even be making mantı for a famous market in Ankara. They make TL 100 a month for the five kilos each they produce daily. When you consider that one kilo of mantı is sold for around TL 15 in the store, this is a very low wage. At the end of the year, the prison does distribute shares of the profit it has made to the prisoners who work. One of the ateliers I had a chance to observe was one where prisoners were stitching the blue and white smocks of the Turkish Air Forces.

As it turns out, I was sent to the prison wing where the most agreeable prisoners stay, the one with the fewest incidents. Every single woman in the H-4 wing where I stayed was charged with murder. While four of the women in the H-4 wing had their cases still pending in the Supreme Court of Appeals, the others had all been sentenced following trial. Some of the women were serving life. And while some had been sent straight here, others had been transferred here from other prisons where they had been doing time before. Those sent to this prison for the first time might have expected something straight out of the TV series “Parmaklıklar Ardında” (Behind Bars).

Perhaps they imagined they would be pressured for money by other prisoners, or that they would experience violence at the hands of others. But in fact, they found out that in fact conditions at Sincan were really not like that. Those who came to Sincan from other prisons comment, saying “We came from hell and arrived in heaven,” noting that from physical conditions to simply the way they are treated, there are no grounds for comparison between Sincan and other prisons. These prisoners say there is no chance of ever having a work life at other prisons, where they feared being attacked by razors wielded by insane prisoners, and prayed to be transferred somewhere else.

The people the women here have murdered are almost always their husbands or their lovers. Some were forced by these same men into other crimes. One woman here is accused of killing her own child, while another is imprisoned for choking her landlord and his child to death with a belt. Most women used either knives or guns for their crimes. There are some who assert: “We didn't carry out these crimes. Our only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” In some of these cases, the courts have ruled that they were instigators.

I learned the stories of most of these women, but I do not wish to share them with my readers. First of all, some of these stories have incredibly saddening and shocking details. I tried to maintain my calm listening to them, but when I left the prison, it took me two days to gather myself.

Maintaining confidentiality

Some of these stories are so traumatic to listen to that I don't wish to expose my readers to them. The second reason I don't wish to share these stories is that these lines will also be read by the women with whom I spoke. It is not enough not to name them or show their photographs. There is little point for these events from the past to be re-lived by them, even if on paper this time round.

The third reason is that some of the dimensions to the stories they told me were not actually ones that they themselves told me but things I found when doing research on the Internet. If I leave out these details, the stories are incomplete, but if I include them, I hurt the tellers. And the fourth reason I don't wish to share these stories is the risk of making the families and friends of those who were murdered feel as though I am just telling one side of the story.

A fifth reason is that I don't want to provoke any feelings of identification between women who are also experiencing terrible situations and these prisoners, thereby perhaps triggering ideas of murder in people's minds.

And the final reason I don't wish to share these stories is because I don't want anyone to think, “Well, that man really deserved what he got!” A person cannot help thinking, “I wonder what I would do in the same situation?” I should admit that this same question really nagged at me, too.

Generally, the women talk about the people they killed or are accused of killing as “that person.” They don't like to mention names or offer descriptions. “Those people” are seen by these women as having set traps for the women to get out of crimes they committed themselves. If you are curious about whether these women feel remorse for the crimes they committed, the answer is no. This is a point they reached after years of build-up. They often think they had no other choice, as they didn't know how to protect themselves emotionally or legally.

Some of the women here have pen pals who are also lovers who are locked up doing time in other prisons. When there is news about them in the papers, these women get lots of letters. Men who write them address them formally in the first letter, then by their names in the second letter and finally as “my love” in the third letter. These are men who believe, “The only women who will accept us are those who are also in prison, living similar lives to ours.” The women here affirm the mentality behind this kind of thinking, saying, “The only men who could possibly understand us are those who also eat with plastic forks, who get startled by the emergency button sound and whose faces are constantly having doors closed on them.”

Some of these women have not tasted coffee for years after they first set foot in prison. “Men who are friends with us must be familiar with the longing for coffee that we had,” they say. There are some among this group who have seen the faces of their pen pals only once, and others who have exchanged only photographs, nothing more. Perhaps they will never unite, or perhaps if they do, they will be very old by then; but the fact remains, the words of love that go back and forth between these women and their male friends in other prisons are what keep them going.

Of all the women I had a chance to speak with only one did not characterize herself as religious. They all say that when they are feeling pressed, God helps them both spiritually and materially and that they pray and read from the Quran.

There are some who admit, “We should have lived according to the ethics set out by the Quran.” The greatest dream these women have is to some day go on the hajj. When I ask why, the answer I get is, “To set foot on the soil our Prophet walked upon, and to be closer to God.” Some of the women wept as they talked about this. They all know that to murder is a sin, but this is how they comfort themselves in regards to their crimes: “Yes, we are guilty. But we were right because God knows and saw what we experienced. When it is our time to be judged in God's presence, these things will be considered, and in light of them, we will be forgiven.”

The one question that everyone asked me when I spent my time in prison was this: “Is there an amnesty coming out soon?” Many of them interpret even the smallest events that take place in prison as a sign of a possibly amnesty. For example, let's say the electricity goes out one night, or a letter comes from someone unexpected or perhaps even a glass breaks; all of these minor events can be seen as signs of an impending amnesty! In fact, so rigorous is the search for a sign of an amnesty that the women plead with me not to write anything about an amnesty coming, as it only increases disappointment among the prisoners.

From where I was lying, I could see a bit of the sky from the window and one star shining right in front of me. Every now and then a cloud would cover it for a while, but then move on to cover another nearby star. And so the star's light went from bright to dark and back again. And as I lay there, I thought to myself: “That is what life is like. Our stars shine for a while, and then they go dark, and then they can shine again. Our freedom lies in the hands of those clouds really.”

An idealist in prison

One of the best things that happened to me when I spent time in the prison wing was being able to meet the young woman who accompanied me as a social worker. I thought this young woman, who reminded me of one of those idealist teacher types from old Turkish films, was just wonderful.

She opened the way for me to do my research, seeing that I didn't want to re-traumatize the prisoners in making them tell me their life and crime stories and understanding that I was looking for a way to ask questions that didn't carry judgment or accusation.

This young woman's own voice struck a chord somewhere between authority and a very womanly softness. I knew that being able to form empathy in such jobs was important, but I didn't realize just how much effort was necessary in order for the “I understand you” message not to be confused with a message of “I think you are right to be murderers.” Whatever happened in the past had already happened.

What was important now was to maintain positive emotions and hopes for the future. The social worker used not only body language but actual words and facial expressions to show and convey all of this.

Ateliers in prison

The prisoners I spoke with who worked in the prison ateliers noted that working in these places was one way to lessen their pain of being in prison, even if only by a little. They all agree that the alternative, sitting in their cells and just thinking, is much worse. They also agree that working in prison ateliers is one way to meet other prisoners and get a chance to chat. But from what I saw, for example in the mantı-making atelier, women actually don't even have time or energy left to lift their heads and talk with one another. Ground beef in one hand, dough in the other, the women simply work as hard and as fast as they can to meet their daily quotas. Most are subdued, in a sort of hypnotic state.

Only one woman in the wing gets a newspaper regularly, and everyone reads hers. They generally do not follow the news, though. “As it is, we are already depressed, we have no desire to get even more depressed,” they say.