During the coronavirus pandemic, the imprisoned students have 'the longest distance' to education
While we are discussing how "accessible" online courses and exams are on the internet nowadays during the influence that the coronavirus epidemic has over the world, a group has been out of sight: The imprisoned students.
Students behind bars became a public concern most when Cihan Kırmızıgül, a student of Galatasaray University, was detained for 25 months in 2010 for wearing a keffiyeh.
Difficulty in accessing educational materials, the financial burden of entering exams, and the lack of access to technologies that support their education, such as the internet, are among the main challenges of imprisoned students. For a student that is behind bars, the cost of passing the bureaucracy and taking an exam can go up to TRY 600-700. Moreover, there is a decision by the European Court of Human Rights that condemns Turkey for "violating the students' rights to access education".
The Ministry does not declare how many students are in prisons
There is no up-to-date data regarding the students in prisons, which is expressed in "thousands", nor such a data is disclosed. Yet, when we asked for the number of students Turkish prisons within the framework of the right to information, we could not get an answer from the Ministry of Justice. Also, for the application we made to YÖK via CİMER concerning the number of students in Turkish prisons, the response was: "No information is available regarding prisons".
On the other hand, according to what Namık Kemal Varol, the Deputy General Director of Prisons and Detention Houses, reported to the subcommittee on Imprisoned and Convict Rights Inquiry of the Committee on Human Rights Inquiry of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (GNAT) in November 2019; a total of 2792 detainees and convicts continue formal education, 51.458 of them continue non-formal education, and 329 prisoners continue distance education.
The "most up-to-date" statement issued by the Ministry of Justice regarding the number of imprisoned students dates back to 2016. Responding to the motion of Gamze İlgezdi from CHP in 2017, Abdülhamit Gül, the Minister of Justice, announced that the number of students in prisons was 69.301 as of 2016.
Filiz Kerestecioğlu, İzmir Deputy of the Peoples' Democratic Party, is also one of those who wanted to learn more about the status of the students in prisons. In her parliamentary question dated 21 September 2020, Ms Kerestecioğlu asked about the number of student prisoners enrolled in educational institutions for the 2019-2020 spring term, the accessibility of online exams for the students in prison, and the preschool education conditions for children aged 0-6 staying behind bars with their parents. The Ministry of Justice has not answered the questions of Ms Kerestecioğlu yet.
"How come the government does not have those numbers?"
Berna Akkızal from Civic Space Studies Association, who works on the freedom of expression on the campus, says that they asked the Ministry of Justice many times about the number of students in prison. Still, they could not get an answer: "The ministry does not reveal the numbers no matter how many times we had asked." And this worries us. Is the number too high? How come the government does not have those numbers? The number of students in prison is a figure that should be available without any special inquiry. "
Ms Akkızal states that there has been increasing pressure on students on campuses, especially "since the end of the solution process in 2015". "Students are trying to speak up for many issues. Speaking up doesn't necessarily have to be for a political issue. The students can also be detained and arrested for protesting price hikes in the university's cafeteria. These arrests are also labelled as terrorist propaganda" she states.
Ms Akkızal also states that the investigation, prosecution, and detention processes have caused students to lose their rights like scholarships and dormitories and that many universities have taken away the rights of students who are investigated through disciplinary practices.
"I didn't really feel like I was getting any education."
İdil Aydınoğlu, who was arrested in 2012 when she was a graduate student, describes her pupillage experience during detention as "You don't really feel like you are getting any education." Ms Aydınoğlu says, "Education means attending classes and having the chance to communicate directly with an educator" and adds:
"Taking an exam, being able to read certain things, and measuring your own knowledge is not an education. I read the sources sent to me and took the exam. Since I was not satisfied with this at all, I suspended my study. You cannot pass the courses that require compulsory attendance, and this is a problem all by itself."
Underlining that she had the opportunity to take the exam as her university had "more liberal and sensitive" approach at that time, Ms Aydınoğlu adds, "Every university student may not have this chance."
Ms Aydınoğlu was detained and arrested at the beginning of 2012 within the scope of the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) Istanbul Main Case. The footage of Ms Aydınoğlu, who continues her career in law today, taking the exam accompanied by the gendarmerie, was published in the press. When Ms Aydınoğlu was arrested, the imprisoned students were again occupying the agenda, just as when they did during the Cihan Kırmızıgül case. According to the data of that period, Ms Aydınoğlu was one of 600 imprisoned students.
"I did my best to keep being a student in prison."
Like Ms Aydınoğlu, Ufuk Aydın, who was sentenced to 12 years and eight months in prison while he was a university student and spent eight years and four months in detention, says "Unfortunately, it is not possible to be a regular student in prison." Mr Aydın says, "While you are supposed to be prosecuted without arrest, they want to cut you off from university by giving you pre-trial detention." He also says, despite passing mid-term exams, they are prevented from taking the final exams due to "absenteeism" and that "university senates" are responsible for this.
He states that to continue his education, he took the university entrance exam many times to apply to the departments that have no compulsory attendance. Mr Aydın also adds, "Being a student in prison was just a struggle for me. In other words, I tried my best to keep being a student in prison" and explains:
"Being a prisoner student has somehow facilitated being an inmate for me to some extent. This was a convenience I created within myself, for there is no category called "student" by the government. Creating something, thirst for knowledge, and willingness to do researches were all part of being a student, and I can say that keeping this will alive has given me the strength to fight with the difficulties I was going through."
Stating that "When time turns the imprisonment into a serious torment, studying with that stress can be weary, " Mr Aydın adds:
"In my dreams, I was always late for classes and exams. And then I used to wake up and realize that I was still in prison. Of course, I did not know whether I should be glad I was late for the exam or upset about waking up in prison."
"We do not know what percentage of students left their education without a credential."
Serdar Usturumcalı from Civil Society in Penal System (CİSST), the leading non-governmental organization working on prison students, said that the prisoner students mostly requested referrals to the provinces and states where the university they attended, supplementary reference books for exam preparation, information about institutions that can grant scholarships for tuition fees, and class notes.
"We understand from the letters students send us that they face many difficulties even to continue their education. They are trying to continue their schooling under much more difficult and unequal conditions than an ordinary university student. For instance, we know that in recent years, many students have had difficulties in finding the opportunity to study due to the crowded wards" says Mr Usturumcalı. Some students continue to their formal education in prisons just as the regular university students. However, Mr Usturumcalı says they do not know how many of these students represent the numbers that have been made public, and that moreover, they cannot get this information:
"We know from the letters we received that some students, who were arrested while continuing their formal education and held in closed penitentiary institutions, failed due to absence since they could not attend their classes and that they had to leave their education or, at best, suspend their studies. However, since we do not have the figures, we cannot see the whole picture clearly, and we do not know what percentage of students dropped out of their education or suspend their studies."
"There's something about prison that alienates you from education."
Ulaş Budak is one of the students preparing for the university exam while in prison. Arrested in November 2019, Mr Budak remained in Tarsus T-Type Prison until he was released in March 2020. His detention period coincided with the period he was preparing for university.
"We were sharing a hall with 24 people," Mr Budak said, "so I did not have the opportunity to study in a quiet environment or take a mock exam. When I started taking a mock exam, the guard could come and call for me."
"I had to wait a long time for books because they were examined. I did not have any materials other than books that I could study. Also, your motivation to prepare for university decreases while you are going through that state of mind of being imprisoned. There's something about prison that alienates you from education. Because you see the futility of prisoners."
Mr Budak says, however, he was more "ambitious", striving for the right to education rather than alienating from it. Eventually, he has gotten into the Geomatics Engineering Department at Yıldız Technical University.
The biggest challenge is the financial burden
Financial difficulties are the primary challenges of students in prison. Stating that since many prisoner students either quit their education or could not even start attending to their classes because they could not pay their tuition fees, Usturumcalı reminds that the tuition fees of the students were covered by the Ministry of Family and Social Policies until 2017, per the protocol signed between the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Family and Social Policies:
"This protocol has not been renewed since 2017, and these scholarships have been assigned to the Social Assistance and Solidarity foundations in the provinces where the prisons are located. The board of trustees of these foundations determines which students' fees will be paid. This made things difficult in many ways."
Challenges follow financial difficulties in accessing educational materials and taking exams. Mr Usturumcalı adds that there are students who cannot access class notes and reference books due to financial problems.
"I try to keep students' connected with their education."
In fact, bringing educational materials and prisoner students together is another story itself. Legal scholar İpek Özel, who has been the custodian of the students in prisons for many years, takes care of students at every stage of their education to "keep students connected".
Since the students cannot go to schools for enrollment and do not have the authority to sign, she executes their enrollment process as their "custodian". Ms Özel is also the one who chooses the courses for them, prepares their educational materials, books, past exam questions, and delivers them to the prison so that the prisoner students can make the necessary applications to take the exams.
Ms Özel says, "I try to make this work so that they do not lose their connection with education" and reminds us of financial difficulties:
"A prisoner does not earn money. Moreover, staying behind bars requires money. To 'not feed' the situation, the government makes you pay your rent, your electricity, food, and drink expenses when you come out of prison. The government sends you an invoice after you are released. Staying behind bars is a very serious financial burden. An example is İlhan Çomak, the poet. You cannot say, 'Let me bring him a bunch of paper." When purchasing something from the canteen, you have to pay more than normal."
An important pillar of this financial challenge is accessing exams. For the imprisoned students to take the exam, their university must first apply to the prison. Then, the students apply to the prison with the same request. The prison reports the request to the Ministry of Justice. "The Ministry often allows," says Özel.
"They pay the cost of shuttle bus and the fee of the gendarmes."
Taking the exam creates just another financial burden for these students. Following the Ministry of Justice's approval, a letter is written to the General Commandership of Gendarmerie so that the gendarmerie officers who will take the student to the exam would be ready. Ms Özel states that the student has to pay the cost of the shuttle bus, the fee of the gendarmes who will perform their transfer, and the daily fee of a prison in which they may stay in case they need to take the exam at a university outside the city:
"Eight gendarmes escort a single student. You can take the exam provided you pay for their service. There were times when we paid TRY 650-700 for a shuttle bus for a round-trip. A student cannot just say, 'I paid for the shuttle money, so it should be private like a taxi'. The same shuttle picks up the ones going to the court, the prison. For a four-hour trip, you may be on the road for 14 hours."
The prisoner students also face many difficulties during the exam. Ms Özel summarizes the exam phase as follows:
"The student enters the university handcuffed. The gendarmerie goes to the exam room and then checks the room and the windows. They are deployed in front of the windows and doors. The handcuffed student is taken into the exam room. Whoever will enter the room must introduce themselves first. So is the exam supervisor. The student cannot eat or drink anything by purchasing them from outside of the prison. He can only drink water and eat biscuits if he brings them with him. Because they have medical check-ups when entering and exiting the prison. The student can use the bathroom only if accompanied by the gendarmerie. Using the bathroom can be a problem for female students because there should be a female gendarmerie for them. Sometimes it can be difficult to organize that."
Coming for an exam with their hands cuffed to the school where they spent their student lives and studied with their classmates is an interesting experience for prisoner students.
İdil Aydınoğlu says that the exam day on which her photo was published in the newspapers was the first day she was out of the prison after her arrest:
"The day I took the exam at the university was very interesting, because it was actually an emotional moment for me. It was the first time I got out of prison. You leave the prison with commanders and enter the university you always go to with people whose status you don't know. What made me think the most was whether I had the right to education equal to the people I studied with. I don't think I had that."
Apart from the details, difficulty and financial burden of this process in total, İpek Özel underlines that the real problem lies in the YÖK (the Council of Higher Education) Law. Stating that "YÖK recognizes the right of students to exam and education", Ms Özel adds that despite this fact, many prisons and universities -especially public universities- do not allow prisoner students to take the exam for security reasons:
"Many universities, public universities acting with a political agenda. If the political administrators make a statement on that issue, they do not accept it. For example, there is an ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Therefore, they may not allow history students to take the exam. It's so absurd. Many of them do not allow students in case they may 'shout a slogan'."
The constitution and laws protect the "right to education"
The right to education is a right protected by constitutional and international conventions.
Serdar Usturumcalı from CISST reminds us of Article 42 of the constitution that says "No one can be deprived of the right to education and training":
"In this context, according to the Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures, the purpose of education includes 'developing the personality' of the prisoners, 'improving their education', 'enabling them to acquire new skills', 'eliminating the tendency to commit a crime', and 'preparing them for post-release period'. Also, the educational programs to be organized for these purposes include 'primary education', 'secondary and higher education', 'career training', 'religious education', 'physical education', 'library', and 'psychosocial service'."
In addition, according to Article 2, titled "Right to Education", of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is binding for Turkey;
"No one can be deprived of the right to education. In the fulfilment of its duties in the field of education and training, the government respects the right of parents to educate their children according to their philosophical beliefs."
Pointing out that these rights are not exercised properly, especially when there are those arrested under the Law on Fight Against Terrorism, İdil Aydınoğlu refers us Article 67 of the Law on the Execution of Penalties and Security Measures no. 5275. Accordingly;
"The convict may not keep a computer in his room. However, if it is considered appropriate by the Ministry of Justice, permission may be given to bring a computer into the penal institution for educational and cultural purposes. These rights may be restricted for dangerous convicts and convicts of organized crime."
ECHR's decision for the violation of the right to education after 13 years
Prisoners, in fact, have the right to use computers. There is also a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) application, in which Turkey was convicted under this article. However, the length of the process of seeking remedies makes this remedy "unusable".
Mehmet Reşit Arslan, the applicant of the said file, and Orhan Bingöl were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1992 and 1995, respectively. During that time, Arslan was a senior medical student, and Bingöl was a student at another university.
They requested the use of computers, Mr Arslan in İzmir F-Type Prison on 13 March 2006 and Mr Bingöl in Kocaeli F-Type Prison on 1 August 2006. However, the prison administrations rejected these requests as per the above article. The application of the two prisoners to the ECHR was concluded after 13 years, in 2019. ECHR declared that the Article 2/1 of the ECHR titled "Right to Education" had been violated.
Ms Aydınoğlu says: "It took 13 years to determine that this practise was unlawful. Exhaustion of domestic law and receiving a final decision from the ECHR can take a long time. This shows that prison administrations play an active role in protecting the right to education, which should be the focus."
Highlighting that the prisons' view of prisoners varies according to the "political atmosphere", Ms Aydınoğlu says, "Issues such as social perspective and the increase or decrease in the term of imprisonment should not affect the prisoners' using their rights, if not, there should be a reasonable reason for this."
"We see that the rights of students convicted or prosecuted for terrorism and organized crime can be restricted more easily. Then, what does security stand for here? For example, can restricting a prisoner political sciences student for security reasons who was convicted for political reasons from reading Marx be justified? This is part of the student's education. These are labelled authors with books that are sold, and you have access to. Why can't prisoners have access to the resources we can access? The question is why they can be restricted.
"The state of detention should be discussed, considering that detention is an exception, and the effects it will have on people's lives. When you arrest a student, you cannot enable him to continue his education just by giving him the right to take an exam. Prisoner students should have access to all the rights that their free classmates have. All rights of people whose freedom is restricted must be protected. This includes accessing resources in terms of protecting the right to education, accessing educational institutions for those in prison, ensuring that they serve their time without feeling estranged, and ensuring that they can participate in training."
Elif Akgül shares this news with T24. It is prepared as a part of the investigative journalism scholarships based on the right to information provided by P24 with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.