Compulsory jail « common outfits » are back in the news. In the eighties, this custom led to long and intense resistance, legal battles and hunger strikes in prisons, leading to the suppression of this humiliating and iniquitous practice, but not before it had caused several deaths.

Prisoner Uniforms back in the news

The first hearings have begun in the trials relative to those accused of the July 15th 2016 failed coup attempt.

During a hearing in the FETÖ trial, (the acronym stands for Fetullah’s terrorist organization, the leader of which, Fetullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s former friend and fellow traveller is now public enemy number one) one of the accused appeared before the court in Muğla wearing a T-Shirt bearing the word “HERO” printed in big letters. This led to raising from the vaults this ancient repressive prison custom of « wearing a uniform ».

Erdoğan commented in that direction in his speech commemorating July 15th, paying tribute to the « courage » of the « Turkish Nation», “bastion against the putschists“, inscribing a “new legend in History ». He announced : “I spoke to our Prime Minister recently and told him that when those ones (the accused) appear before the Court, let’s bring them like they do in Guantanamo, in uniforms. »

Numan Kurtulmuş, the government spokesman, then also declared that the government was at work on this project. “The fact those ones [the accused] appear before the courts in a common outfit is indeed the most correct way. Our Ministry of Justice is working on it ».

Inaugurating the stadium in Hatay, Erdoğan repeated the same thing on August 5th : “… But now, to those, we will bring the common outfit. The common outfit ! Colorwise, do you picture the color of almonds ? It will be in a slightly darker shade of almond. They will be of two kinds. There will be a full body suit. And there will be a set with pants and vest. One part of them, let’s say the putschists, will wear the full body suit and the others, that is to say the terrorists, will wear the pants and vest. From now on, they can no longer dress as they choose and show up [in court] that way. And in this fashion will those ones be displayed to the world. » (video)

Prison Hunger strikes

We should recall that hunger strikes have a long history as a form of protest in Turkish jails. They began in the thirties with the incarceration of the poet Nâzım Hikmet, moving on to Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan, Hüseyin İnan before their execution in 1972. Two important waves in the eighties and in 2000 resulted in several victims. And today, Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, two teachers fired by decree, continue their hunger strike in prison.

But let’s take a closer look at the hunger strikes that raised, among other demands, the suppression of prison uniforms.

After the military putsch of September 12 1980, the uniform was imposed for the first time in Sultanahmet prison (Istanbul). From there the practice slowly spread to the other men’s prisons. Serious forms of protest, including hunger strikes and « fasting to the death » [a hunger strike with no ingestion of sugared or salted water] took place against this practice. Detainees refusing to wear the uniform were sent to solitary confinement. The jails of Metris (Istanbul), of Mamak (Ankara) and of Diyarbakır were on the front lines of this resistance. A hunger strike began in Metris in 1984. 400 prisoners took part. After 45 days, it was transformed into a « fasting to the death » in which Abdullah Meral, Haydar Başbağ, Fatih Öktülmüş and Hasan Telci lost their lives.

In 1985, 35 detainees were still on hunger strike in Metris. In February 1986 the mandatory wearing of the uniform was abandoned there. In July 1987, 50 prisoners began a hunger strike in the Sağmacılar prison and this resistance spread to the other prisons in Anatolia. Following talks held with the authorities by representatives of TAYAD (solidarity association with the families of prisoners), the prisoners’ demands were accepted and the hunger strikes came to an end on August 13 1987. In 1988, in Diyarbakır jail, prisoner Mehmet Emin Yavuz also died following a hunger strike. Topaç, the Minister of Justice at the time, had once again ordered the compulsory wearing of a prison uniform but this order was never executed because of the hunger strikes in several prisons .

For details and a timetable of these protests and hunger strikes in Turkey up until 2002, you can have a look at this brochure in pdf format (in French).

Photograph taken by journalist Deniz Teztel at the first hearing of the trial against the THKP-C (the Party and Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of the People) during which the accused, having refused to wear the uniform, faced the judges in their underwear.

Ertuğrul Mavioğlu’s Testimony

Ertuğrul Mavioğlu is a journalist and the author, among other books, of a series of three under the title “The September 12th Settling of Scores” (The book is available in Turkish and in pdf format HERE). The first tome dealing with this period is titled : “Those who were not hung, but fed », a reference to the words* of Kenan Evren, Chief of staff of the 1980 military coup d’Etat, and later President of the Republic.

*Kenan Evren had said “We shouldn’t hang them, but feed them maybe ? », referring to Erdal Eren, a activist with the TDKP (Turkish Revolutionary Communist Party) arrested with 24 others during a demonstration and charged with the murder of a soldier at this same demonstration. Erdal , 16,was executed by hanging on December 1980, after his age was modified to allow for the execution.

In jail at the time, Ertuğrul Mavioğlu writes in his book, “During this period, wearing a uniform was part of the attempt to depersonalize and standardize prisoners, at the heart of all the offensives.

On August 17 1983, following decree 13-1, prison administrations began confiscating the detainees’ personal effects.

We had to wear pyjamas we made out of sheets and coverings of comforters. One part of our confiscated belongings ended up rotting in warehouses, the rest were stolen.

Resisting against the wearing of a common outfit wasn’t simply a matter of wearing or not the same kind of fabric on our backs. If we accepted to wear it, the repression would not abate. Quite the contrary, it was meant to play a role in our submission, it opened a boulevard for other orders and an offensive on a wider scale.

The more aggressive the order grew, the more resistance intensified. The « fast to the death » began in these circumstances on April 11 1984 in the isolation unit with detainees from Devrimci Sol (Revolutionary Left) and TIKB (Union of Turkish Revolutionary Communists). Within two days, prisoners in the other units and sections of Metris prison (Istanbul), and from the Special Type prison of Sağmalcılar (Istanbul) joined the mobilization.

Our specifie demands were the following: suppression of the obligation to wear the uniform, an end to torture, the re-establishment of humane and socially acceptable conditions and the recognition of our status as political prisoners. »

During this period, parallel to the compulsory uniform, other humiliating means of repression were imposed on the prisoners, such as military-style haircuts or standing in ranks and at attention.

In an interview with Ayça Söylemez published on Bianet on August 4, Ertuğrul Mavioğlu said :

“For one, Guantanamo is not a place that should serve as an example. It is a prison known for its bad practices and that has drawn reprobation world-wide. »

“The fact this topic is cropping up again is a sign that heavy totalitarianism has arrived in Turkey. »

“Once implemented, even when targeting certain persons, these types of practices open the door to other persecutions affecting everyone. For example, the practices used against FETÖ prisoners in Silivri were extended to the prisoners from the Cumhuriyet newspaper. »

On Pro-regime medias…

On the same day, the media under orders gleefully relayed news that the Ministry of Justice had moved ahead in its « work » concerning prison uniforms :
“Following discussions with prison administrators, supervisors of sewing shops and textile engineers, the following ideas were agreed upon. FETÖ detainees will wear a uniform consisting of pants and shirts made out of alpaca, a fabric suited to climactic conditions. The outfits will be the color of dried almonds. » [ excrement color in fact, nicely put. ]

“Their making will be carried out by the textile workshops in the open prisons of Bandırma and Bursa. The patterns are being prepared. 50 000 outfits will be sent to prisons holding FETÖ detainees. »

“A majority in Turkish society demands a new judiciary design, » they say, « and we are doing everything in our power to keep you informed and to provide answers to all the questions you may have »…

The following publication, found on one of his master’s voice newspapers [we will not give it free advertising] offers an 8-page diaporama of a pre-digested « tell-all » with supporting views from specialists. You will find here a semi-commented version of this « newspaper », the commentary provided through our care to give an idea of that media’s voice, and its quasi-ventriloquist quality in Turkey…

> What is the common outfit ?

“As a general rule across the world, beginning with the United States, prisoners and detainees awaiting judgment must wear a compulsory outfit. This practice is important for discipline and the rehabilitation sought for in prison, and it facilitates the erasing of a pre-detention social satus of which the guilty ones still carry traces. From a psychological point of view, this approach is seen as an important factor in the guilty ones’ reintegration into civilian society, as should be obvious. »
The words are illustrated with a photograph and the following sub-heading: « Example of a common outfit in American jails, in a scene from ‘In Hell’, a 2003 film with Van Damme”

> Why is this of current interest in Turkey ?

“After Zekeriya Kuzu appeared in a suit and tie before the judge in his trial for an attempted attempt against Erdoğan, citizens began a campaign demanding uniforms. Millions of citizens are demanding it. The arrival of Gökhan Güçlü at his trial, wearing a T-Shirt with the word HERO attracted attention. »
Illustrated with photos of both men when arrested and when arriving at the court house in “correct” attire.

> What do prison rules say ?

“In the prison rules modified 1983, and reformulated in 1987 we find the following : (Article 82) Concerning detainees awaiting judgment : if the detainees’ clothing is not sufficient or if it must be confiscated for judiciary purposes, they may be offered prison apparel. (Article 93) Prisoners are not authorized to obtain food, bedding and clothing outside the prison’s administration. (Article 96) Prison outfits are given to each prisoner and the condemned are obliged to wear them. »
What is the context in this last article ? A mystery…

> Two measures…

In passing, a slight detail concerning the « Hero » T-Shirt. We are told that « the prison staff who allowed this apparel to go unchecked will be prosecuted » and that “all of the FETÖ putschists’ items of clothing will be removed and examined, item by item, and the wearing of any item of clothing bearing inscriptions in a foreign language, beginning with English, will be prohibited. »
Oh good…

> “The lawyer’s opinion ? »

Yes indeed, what does the lawyer say ? He become a prosecutor… He says : « there are 119 accused and with their friends and family members in the court room, they constitute a majority and this creates a peculiar atmosphere. There should be a new design for the judiciary. There should be different practices for individuals being tried for an attempted coup. It’s a political crime and they go on committing it. Messages on T-Shirts, intimidations, and other behaviors continue. We must act so that they cannot continue these provocations. The common outfit is an example [of measures that must be taken], and it is necessary. Moreover, concerning trials with multiple accused, they must be transferred to the courtroom taking all appropriate safety measures, shackled and handcuffed. There must be images that will imprint themselves in people’s memories. In this way, public opinion will also be satisfied. »

> “How are things done in other countries ? »

“The use of uniforms is widespread in different countries. The United States provide the most important example. Until the 19th century in America, prisoners were garbed in black and white striped apparel. In the beginning of the 20th century, this practice was abandoned and different models were preferred. Starting in the seventies, orange uniforms started being used in many prisons in the United States ». Bla bla bla, with examples and photos… ending, of course, in keeping with the Reis’ words : « Also in the prison of Guantanamo that has attracted world-wide attention, [we wonder why] orange uniforms are given to the prisoners. »
The words are illustrated by two photographs of detainees, one of them with head bent. All that is missing is a Charlie Chaplin in prison uniform…

> “The political parties’ vision ? »

The article sheds light on the different opinions in Parliament giving the AKP vision « for », and the CHP, « against ».

That’s all. There are no other political parties in Turkey. Next page please…

> The highlight in the show : “Survey : What do the people want ?

“Millions of citizens demand compulsory uniforms for the putschist traitors who participated in the July 15th coup attempt. Citizens chanting everywhere « We want the death penalty ! » display their response to the clothing statements made by the accused ».
Clothing statements !

« The survey conducted by our paper gives a noteworthy picture. In this survey, close to 3000 people responded to the question with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ : ‘Should we have a common outfit for the accused of July 15th ?’. In a very short while, 89% had voted ‘yes’ and 11% ‘no’ » . Aargh ! 11% of traitors !

The article closes on this same page with a reminder concerning the HERO T-Shirt, illustrated with the following photo taken on the square facing the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, for the Muğla court house being small, the hearing was held there… “The citizens who gathered on the square [millions as can be seen…] raised a scaffold, threw ropes at the accused, read out their names, then chanted ‘hang them !’ »

Facing the Judge in Uniform

A person who is accused, even if detained prior to sentencing, is not condemned yet.

Which means the person still carries the hope of an acquittal. During the judicial process, the accused must appear before the judges, present a defence, answer questions, and express himself or herself. Obviously, appearing in an acceptable outfit may play in his or her favor. Of course, the regime wants to deny political prisoners this possibility. Yet, a decent appearance is « traditionally » taken into account for misdemeanours and crimes of common law. We have published a number of articles concerning assassinations, assaults or rapes on women or children, where the accused received heavily reduced sentences « for a well-tied necktie »… The State thus encourages feminicides and violences by the means of Justice and proper attire…

The prison uniform is a tool of humiliation with psychological power. Its aim is to subjugate, depersonalize and draw attention to the condemned according to his offence, and the color choice is not innocent in this regard. The « dried almond » color, as described by Turkish authorities is a reminder of the color of excrement, and needs no further explanation in this context. Forcing prisoners to wear a uniform is an act of subjugation pure and simple. Just as the military or police uniform is perceived by civilians to indicate superior force, or again, the white coat symbolizes scientific « authority » for instance, inversely, the common outfit for prisoners places him in a submissive position.

A Proposed New Law

Today on August 6th, the Commission presided by Dr. Sulhi Dönmezer and working on the reform of the law concerning sentences and measures surrounding them, presented its project to the Justice Minister, Cemil Çiçek. (Bianet)

As announced, the project contains the compulsory wearing of a uniform and opens up the possibility of forceful intervention on prisoners pursuing a hunger strike.

In summary, article 64 of the project stipulates : “The fact that detainees dress as they choose may hinder discipline among the prisoners and facilitate escapes ». According to the project, prison administrators will be authorized to impose uniforms if they deem them necessary.

No publication “that might endanger security and that would contain articles, information and obscene photos will be authorized for prisoners. »
Again, the vaguness which leaves interpretation to the prison administrators, allows for arbitrary decisions, under the excuse of decency.

Once the project will have force of law, the detainees will be allowed to acquire all editions by paying for them and “rooms will not contain more books than necessary ». What is the “necessary” number of books in a ward or a cell ? How is this « neceesity » calculated ?

“Prisoners may be obliged to perform compulsory work in work shelters or workshops, as well as in areas outside the jail, such as construction sites and mines. In these cases, these persons will be paid for their work and these sums of money will be declared. »
Moreover, we note that the construction of type L prisons, on the basis of forced labor, continues. Once these constructions are finished, most prisoners will be forced to work. A century’s worth of regression ? Cheap labor ?

The project allows for « forceful intervention in the case of a hunger strike », and therefore, force feeding.

This form of protest, undoubtedly the most radical, will thus be denied to prisoners. If this is added to the projected law, along with compulsory uniforms, it is precisely because hunger strikes demonstrated their efficiency in the past, while unfortunately inscribing the names of victims, dead or handicaped for life, in the history of Turkish jails.

We can now raise the question, in the case of Nuriye and Semih, on hunger strike for the past 151 days, and thrown in jail since May 22nd. A protest to which the regime does not want to yield… Nuriye and Semih, having long gone beyond the critical phase, maintain their strike with determination, constantly demanding the same thing, their jobs. Only a forceful intervention could avoid their loss and the Turkish State knows that, should they die, the situation is at risk of further complications.

This reform would allow the government this way out to keep them alive.

Killing two birds with one stone.


Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges.
French version > Turquie • Retour du port de l’uniforme dans les prisons

Rédaction par Kedistan. Vous pouvez utiliser, partager les articles et les traductions de Kedistan en précisant la source et en ajoutant un lien afin de respecter le travail des auteur(e)s et traductrices/teurs. Merci.
Kedistan’ın tüm yayınlarını, yazar ve çevirmenlerin emeğine saygı göstererek, kaynak ve link vererek paylaşabilirisiniz. Teşekkürler.
Kerema xwe dema hun nivîsên Kedistanê parve dikin, ji bo rêzgirtina maf û keda nivîskar û wergêr, lînk û navê malperê wek çavkanî diyar bikin. Spas.
Writing by Kedistan. You may use and share Kedistan’s articles and translations, specifying the source and adding a link in order to respect the writer(s) and translator(s) work. Thank you.
Naz Oke on EmailNaz Oke on FacebookNaz Oke on Youtube
Naz Oke
REDACTION | Journaliste
Chat de gouttière sans frontières. Journalisme à l'Université de Marmara. Architecture à l'Université de Mimar Sinan, Istanbul.