Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Turkey’s penal system has a long history of maltreatment and widespread torture. Despite the government’s recent efforts to end systematic cruelty and to bring facilities at par with international standards, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and other international monitoring mechanisms continue to report serious concerns regarding frequent human rights violations and mistreatment. Several recent scandals, along with the high rates of recidivism (reaching 70%), indicate that Turkey’s penal system functions solely as a means of isolation and punishment, rather than a key mechanism for prevention of crime and rehabilitation of criminals to achieve social cohesion.
There are several reasons behind this failure. Turkey’s prisons are far from having sufficient human and financial resources. Around 150,000 prisoners serve time at some 374 institutions across the country each year. For every 100 prisoners, there are only 20 prison personnel, a fraction that lags behind European countries such as Germany or France, where the personnel-to-prisoner ratio is up to four times higher. Rehabilitation programs for prisoners and professional development courses for personnel have been introduced in recent years, but are far from meeting the needs in terms of quality or quantity. Furthermore, the last ten years have seen a significant increase in the overall number of prisoners (at 114% surge in nine years), further increasing the burden on an already strained system.
Hand in hand with the insufficient resources comes the failure to engage communities and civil society in understanding the prisons and in taking an active part in the rehabilitation processes. The government is reluctant to let local civil society initiatives into the prisons, fearing the reactive approach of extremist political and ethnic groups who are the dominant voices in vocalizing the needs of prisoners. As a result, the majority of civil society initiatives that are concerned with prisons fail to develop comprehensive and constructive approaches to problems in the penal system. The CSOs then limit their interventions to shaming and blaming the government and prison personnel, contributing to the marginalization of the issue.
As a result, Turkey’s prisons are not only physically but also socially isolated, creating a culture where prisons are seen as a lost cause, without any return on investments or any possibility of social integration. The country’s young yet bourgeoning civil society organizations do not have prisons on their agenda, and the media only shows interest in the occasional scandal. Additionally, the world of academia doesn’t make efforts to better understand and diagnose the shortcomings of these institutions. This leaves prisons in a vicious cycle where they are deprived of much needed resources and involvement, perpetuating social isolation and prolonging social problems rather than achieving social cohesion.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Zafer Kıraç has been developing a platform that has become a conveyor of resources and knowledge between civil society and prisons. Through CISST, Zafer provides civil society organizations (CSOs) with the knowledge, training and channels to bring their respective programs into prisons in Turkey. In doing so, he facilitates key interventions to ameliorate prison conditions and introduce rehabilitation opportunities preparing prisoners for life after prison. Furthermore, he mobilizes Turkey’s leading CSOs and universities to build public awareness and to form an informal support network for their target groups during and after prison.
These partnerships deliver high quality rehabilitation programs to prisoners as well as prison personnel. The programs also give CSO representatives an opportunity to enter and observe life in prisons, fomenting empathetic understanding of prison situations. In turn, CSOs have increased their capacity to work with prisoners, bringing their resources into the prisons and forming a monitoring function which informs CISST’s reports, policy recommendations, and future programs. CISST also acts as a platform to guide prisoners in their life after prison by connecting them to relevant CSOs and universities. This program has a special focus on youth but also works with marginalized populations like women, LGBT-identifying community members and the elderly.
CISST also is the first and only citizen sector initiative to focus on problems of prison personnel, management, as well as infrastructure and architecture problems of prisons, offering a unique and comprehensive perspective on the penal systems shortcomings. Zafer believes such a comprehensive perspective on prisons is necessary to open up the penal system to change, as is keeping a constructive dialogue with the government that is based on expertise and facts. CISST’s entrepreneurial way of leveraging and channeling much needed resources and know-how for the penal system, along with its systematic perspective that sees prisoners, prison staff and management all as part of the current problems and future solutions – makes significant impact possible for CISST.