Turkish prisoners put to work in conditions approaching slave labour

When most people think of prison life, they do not imagine prisoners picking fruit or serving food in state cafeterias. Yet tens of thousands of prisoners in Turkey are involved in a work programme that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Today in Turkey the Justice Ministry is putting to work 58,595 prisoners in 180 different trades.

Prison workhouses churned out 1.2 million sacks for ballot papers last year; they were used to produce baklava, carpets, olives and ceramics. 

The workhouse in the open prison in Van in eastern Turkey produces textiles, bakery and other food products and paper cups.  

In Bolu, northwest Turkey, 215 convicts at an open prison made products that brought a value of 11 million lira ($1.9 million).

The government plans to use the Türkoğlu open prison in Kahramanmaraş, southeast Turkey, to process the 455 tons of pepper and spices used annually by the Turkish Armed Forces.

Overseeing all of this is the Prison Workshops Institution, which was established under the Justice Ministry in 1997 to provide vocational training to prisoners and keep them in work. The institution now boasts 288 branches and 1,700 workshops in prisons around Turkey, making everything from musical instruments to food products.

Prisoners are also put to work on farmland covering around 17.6 million square metres, as well as in greenhouses that cover an area of 80,000 square metres and produce crops all year. 

A shoe making workshop in one prison.
A shoe making workshop in one prison.

These agricultural projects produce thousands of tons of animal feed, fruit and vegetables, cereals and other crops per year. What’s more, prisoners are also put to work on olive groves and other land owned by the Turkish Armed Forces and universities, and 26,000 trees have been planted on prison grounds.

Turkish news site journo.com.tr reported that the tens of thousands of prisoners who keep these operations running are made to work in conditions reminiscent of slavery, earning daily salaries of between 6 lira ($1.03) and 13 lira ($2.23). And with the prison work programmes making a reported 3 billion lira ($516 million), the prisoners are far from happy to be working overtime on dollar-a-day salaries.

Despite restrictions on who prisoners are allowed to speak to, the Civil Society in the Penal System Association (CISST), an organisation working on prisoners’ rights, managed to reach several working prisoners to compile a report this year on their living conditions.

“They make us work for 130 lira ($22) a month. We wake up at 5 a.m., and leave the prison at 6 a.m. Work starts at 8 a.m., and we work until 5 p.m. We collapse from tiredness as soon as we get back to the prison,” a prisoner who works in a canteen at the Ankara courthouse said.

CISST volunteer activist Yusuf Engin said the private sector has latched onto prison workers as a source of cheap labour, and that the social security they earn does not include pension payments. “Wages should be redefined with input from unions,” Engin said. 

The prisoner told CISST that inspections of prisons are no more than a formality and conditions are dire. “If you saw where we’re staying you’d pity us,” he said.

The prisoners are by law supposed to work no more than five days a week, but the prisoner said they are continually given new tasks at the prison in their time off.

“If we resist (working on weekends) they threaten to put us in solitary,” he said, adding that even illness is rarely enough to excuse them from work.

“The doctors are their own men. They either ignore us when we go to the clinic or kick us out saying there’s nothing wrong with us.”

A bakery in one Turkish prison.
A bakery in one Turkish prison.

The Justice Ministry’s stated aim for the prisoners’ work programme is to benefit society while helping prisoners gain employment skills.

Yet the CISST report says the income from the institution tasked with providing employment training to prisoners is going instead to the construction of new courts and prisons, the means for renewing the flow into prison workshops. 

The directorate that oversees the prison work programmes reported that in 2016 their income approached 3 billion lira, while capital expenditure for the central organisation alone exceeding 309 million lira ($53 million). Yet the wages for the 50,000 prisoners working in the programmes came to just over 30 million lira. 

The number of prisoners in Turkey has risen steadily over the last 10 years, and 139 new prisons have been opened to accommodate them.

So too have the number of working prisoners. Engin explained that up-to-date figures are limited, but that the prison work directorate’s most recent data showed that the number involved in the programme rose by 11 percent in 2017.

There is no way of knowing how many in the programme are men and how many women, but Engin said his association had received letters from inmates explaining that no LGBT prisoners were allowed to work.

The CISST said in a list of demands related to the prison programme that prison work should neither be mandatory, nor should workers have any difference in status from non-workers.

The association’s other demands included an overhaul of the wage system with input from unions, the introduction of health and safety personnel including health workers on the programmes, and the inclusion of pension contributions in their social security payments.