Babies behind bars: Children struggle in Turkish prisons

Turkish police arrested Hatice Kaman 19 days after she gave birth to her son, Akif, on charges of overseeing a matchmaking service for followers of Fethullah Gülen, the reclusive U.S.-based Turkish preacher blamed for masterminding the failed coup of July, 2016.

Kaman nursed her baby in police custody for 11 days before both were moved to a women’s prison in the Istanbul suburb of Bakırköy.

According to the Justice Ministry, there are 669 children in Turkish jails, 64 percent of them under the age of three.

Before Turkey introduced the state of emergency in the wake of the coup attempt, babies younger than six months were not put in prison alongside their mothers, but now even newborns are allowed in jail.

Turkey is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Children's Rights. Article 3 of the convention says all administrative or legislative decisions concerning children should be in the best interests of the child.

But it is difficult to see, apart from being with their mothers, how being in prison is in the best interest of children. There is no regulation for the detained children. They grow up in sub-standard prison conditions and lack the most basic human necessities such as proper healthcare, nutrition, education, and time for play.

If we take the case of nutrition, the state pays $2 a day per prisoner for food. Since children are not technically incarcerated, they are not allotted any daily food rations and share their mother's meals.

Gazel Dülek was jailed eight years ago with her then nine-month-old baby.

''My baby grew up in prison until the age of four. He was the only child in the detention centre at the time. There isn't a specific menu for children. It was tough for me. I tried to feed him from my own daily rations," she said.

Turkish prisons have become overcrowded from thousands of arrests in a post-coup crackdown. Children have to sleep in the same bed with their mothers and are not assigned a cradle or separate bed.

More than 80 percent of children in jail with their mothers do not receive any education. Only 18 percent receive kindergarten or nursery services, but even then, there is a shortage of educational materials.

Access to proper healthcare is another pressing issue for jailed children. Even when prison authorities are willing to let the child see a doctor, they do not allow mothers to accompany them.

''My child was not given a bed, medicine or was not even allowed to have a toy for the first 10 days. We are not allowed to send basic foods. Bakırköy women's prison, in particular, is functioning more like a concentration camp,” said the father of a child jailed with his mother for the last eleven months.

“There are bruises all over my baby's body and face since he keeps falling from the bed and the floors are concrete. His mother cannot accompany him on visits to the doctor," the father said.

Alper Yalçın, the child network representative of the Civil Society Association in Criminal Justice System (CISST), said new legislation was needed.

''We need new laws that are child-focused and are in the best interests of these children. For example, there is a severe capacity problem. The government is debating reducing the age limit (for children kept in jail) from six years to three. That is the only regulation that the government is considering as far as we know," he said.

Children, just like jailed adults, are allowed only four visits a month. Yalçın said the issue needed to be addressed immediately considering the psychological effects on children.

“If the crime is not serious, mothers with young children should not be put in prisons. We are suggesting probation, supervised releases or community service for such mothers. Placing the baby in prison with the mother punishes the child as well,” he said.

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