In Turkey, probation is an open-air prison

A series of purges in the wake of Turkey’s failed July 2016 coup have driven the number of political prisoners to record levels, according to legal expert Kamil Sürek. As a result, Ankara has removed more and more convicted criminals from prison and placed them on probation to make room for the surge of new prisoners.

“Short-term prison sentences were turned into probationary sentences to reduce the number of prisoners,” Sürek told left-wing newspaper Evrensel.

Some 583,083 people are now on probation in Turkey, with 379,100 banned from travelling abroad and forced to report to police stations, Turkish daily Habertürk reported last June.  

Probationary sentences involve judicial control instead of arrest, and attending a training institution or doing public service instead of prison time. But the suffering does not end when the convicted leave Turkey’s prison system.

Those living on probation often re-experience the same trauma they had been exposed to during their times in prison.

"There is another prison created by probation,” said Sedat Sur, a journalist living on probation in Izmir. “People are being thrown into an open prison under the name of the release. You are not free. You're not behind bars, but all the prison rules are still valid.”

Sur was tried for insulting governmental institutions after he reported on corruption of the appointed mayor of the southeastern city of Mardin. Last November, a court sentenced Sur to a year in prison, then two weeks later released him on probation.

Being forced to visit the police station four times a week, along with extra activities like participating in seminars and therapy sessions prevent him from continuing his journalism career.

"I have to plan myself according to the schedule of probation officers,” he said. “I can't concentrate since I constantly think about reporting to the police station. I can only meet with my news sources at the time left from all of those probation processes. Because once you miss an appointment and could not sign your papers on time, your probation decision can be dropped. There is a huge risk of going to jail.”

Özlem E. is a lawyer and master's student at Istanbul University. After four days of detention, she was released on probation and barred from leaving the country. For two years she did everything she could to get the court to lift the ban, which it finally did last month.

"I felt trapped,” she said. “I could not use educational opportunities. I earned scholarships for academic visits abroad, but I couldn't go. I missed vocational meetings outside Turkey. For two years, I focused only on the travel ban. I couldn't work, I had financial issues. The ban was lifted a month ago, but its effects and fear still continue.”

The most frequently used probation method is supervised release, formerly used as a criminal procedure for suspected criminal offenders. And the most common process for supervised release involves having those on probation report to a nearby police station on specified days, as in the case of Sur.

Another method is the travel ban, which can bar a person from leaving the country, as in Özlem’s case, or it prevent the person on probation from leaving a particular city.

In July 2015, the Islamic State (ISIS) bombed the Turkish border town of Suruç, killing 33 people and injuring more than 100. Most of the victims were members of a socialist party, including Ümmühan Özdemir, a 34-year-old political activist who was injured in the attack.

She was fired after the attack and jailed on charges of membership in a terrorist organisation. After six months, she was released on probation. She is not required to visit the police station regularly. But she is not allowed to leave Istanbul. If she does, she will be sent back to prison.

"My family lives in another city, so I can't visit them," Özdemir said. "The state tells me, ‘there are no handcuffs or the need to sign anything, but if I find out that you left Istanbul, I will put you back into smaller prison.’”

Like Sur says, people on probation live in an "outside jail”. It looks like the normal world, but it has many of the same rules as prison.

"Turkey is a huge open prison,” said the journalist. “This is not a metaphor. People outside are forced to follow prison rules, so describing the whole country as an open prison paints a reality."