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Page last updated at 03:48 GMT, Tuesday, 1 April 2008 04:48 UK

Turkey tackles jail overcrowding

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Men in cell at Bayrampasa prison, Turkey
Turkey's prison population now stands at nearly 100,000
The prison kitchens in Istanbul have never been busier.

At Bayrampasa detention centre, prisoner-cooks stand watch over vast metal vats of bubbling stew, just visible through clouds of steam.

To one side, butchers chop their way through a mountain of meat.

When the facility was opened in the 1960s, the kitchens catered for 1,700 inmates. Today they serve almost three times that number.

Recent changes to Turkey's penal code have increased the minimum mandatory sentence for many crimes.

That means prisoners now serve longer before they are eligible for parole.

In addition, legal reforms have forced some trials to start again from scratch.

At close to 100,000, the country's prison population is now at a record high and straining the system.

Sometimes we can't send prisoners to court or to hospital because we haven't got enough staff to escort them
Prison governor Bahtisen Er
The BBC was given rare access to Bayrampasa detention centre to see the result.

Beds in corridors

From mafia bosses to left-wing extremists, it has previously housed some of Turkey's most notorious criminals.

The inmates today are less well-known, but their numbers are soaring.

Currently 145 men are serving time on one ward originally built for 60.

The room is clean, but space is so tight even the corridors now have three-storey beds in them.

"We put up with this because we have to," one inmate complains. "But it's not easy for so many people to live together."

He says prisoners get one hot shower a week. There are only two toilets on the ward.

In the past year overcrowding has become so acute that the prison authorities have put a third layer on many of the bunk beds.

Prisoner working in kitchen, Bayrampasa detention centre, Turkey
The kitchen now caters for around 5,000 inmates

They have slotted in extra beds between the bunks - and there are metal frames underneath to slide out and use in emergencies.

The prison governor is determinedly upbeat, but admits there are problems.

"We do our best, but we can't provide all the services we want to here," says Bahtisen Er.

"We can only allow 20 minutes or so for visiting time, instead of an hour. Sometimes we can't send prisoners to court or to hospital because we haven't got enough staff to escort them."

Libraries and classrooms

The prison administration does try to provide activities for detainees.

A feature film released in March was shot inside Bayrampasa using real inmates as the actors.

But with just two social workers for more than 4,000 prisoners, such opportunities are clearly limited.

The new campus-like prison at Silivri
Silivri is one of five new prisons being built

Close to the coast an hour's drive from Istanbul is part of Turkey's solution.

In Silivri, the justice ministry is building a vast new campus-style prison - one of five that are gradually replacing the ageing, cramped facilities elsewhere.

The large ward system has been abolished for smaller units to house just 21 prisoners, three to a room.

There are libraries and classrooms - their walls still bright with fresh paint - and sports facilities that would be the envy of any local school.

"Opening new bigger prisons may not seem like a way of preventing crime," governor Necati Sevuk reasons.

"But with all the social, cultural and educational facilities we do think inmates will leave here rehabilitated. So eventually the number of people in prison will fall."

The system we run here is not only about punishment. The person goes through a whole rehabilitation and training process
Probation officer Savas Asci
Back in the city, Mehmet is one of the first in Turkey to experience another reform that should help reduce the prison population.

He is doing six months community service for fighting, instead of serving up to a year behind bars.

Mehmet has not even told his family he is being punished.

"Working here is a thousand times better than the alternative," he says. "This is like a form of therapy."

He is working as a cleaner at the offices of Turkey's brand new probation service.

Based on the British model, the system is now in place across the country.

It encourages non-custodial sentences for first-time offenders, who are also registered with probation officers.

Cheaper than prison, it frees up the courts and does not break an offender's ties with the community.

Mehmet who is serving six months community service
Mehmet says community service is much better than prison
Final weeks

"In Turkey, if a person goes to prison he has a 75% chance of re-offending. That's very high," explains probation officer Savas Asci, who says the new idea is slowly catching on.

"There are no statistics for the probation system yet, but I'm sure there'll be a big difference. The system we run here is not only about punishment. The person goes through a whole rehabilitation and training process," Mr Asci says.

At Bayrampasa the inmates are marking their final weeks in cramped conditions.

Everyone here will be transferred to the new facility at Silivri very soon.

The move is badly needed.

In an exercise yard the size of a tennis court, 300 prisoners take turns pacing the concrete to keep fit.

Some spend as long as three years here, awaiting trial.

The number of inmates is increasing all the time.

But until now, the lack of space has kept Turkey's prison population relatively low per capita compared to Europe.

So as new, bigger prisons are built experts warn the reform momentum must continue, or even intensify, or the cells there will soon be full too.

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