On Being a Student in Prison: Interview with Gönül Gören

In April 2018, Gönül Gören, a law student, was taken into custody on the allegation that she was “going to perform a sensational protest” on May 1st and then detained. Her education was interrupted for a year due to her detention, but thanks to the support of her friends, she was, albeit with some difficulty, able to access her course notes and take her exams in prison. We interviewed Gönül -who was imprisoned for a year for exercising her freedom of expression and assembly- about the difficulties of being a student in prison, about the importance of solidarity, the bureaucracy  inside, and what civil society could do for imprisoned and convicted students.

The trial of Gönül Gören along with 23 other people is still ongoing. The next hearing will be held at the Çağlayan Courthouse 25th High Criminal Court on November 11th, 2020 at 10:00. We, as the Civic Space Studies Association, will follow Gönül’s hearing.

CSSA: Could you tell us the reason for your detention and the process?

Gönül Gören: I was a senior law student at that time. One night, while studying for the exam I would take next morning, I learned that the police raided the house where I lived with my family.  In the morning, I saw the news on pro-media channels: “Terror operation in Istanbul. The terrorists who were preparing for a sensational protest on May 1st were detained.” The next day, while meeting with my lawyer and preparing to testify, I was taken from my lawyer’s house and detained on May 1st. Of course, at first I was just stunned, 

I am an ordinary university student, I asked myself what is so special about me. How could the police officers be able to come into my parents’ home at dawn with long-barreled guns? It was not difficult to find the answer: ”I say my objection out loud.” When I was in custody, the remarks made by the “good cops”  to  me supported this idea. For example, the following statements made me realize that there was no legal process: “You are from Edirne, what are you doing in the protests, we were not actually going to take you , but I saw that you are very active on social media recently, I said let’s take Gönül. Do not worry, you will stay inside for 6 months. You should not get involved in these things again, if you organize on the inside, then we will take you again.” I was not exposed to bad behavior in custody, but dealing with such verbal abuse was psychologically challenging. Fortunately, I was not kept at the police station for long, we were taken to the Magistrate’s Office on May 3rd where I was formally detained.

CSSA: We see that students whose education was interrupted during detention or who were convicted for exercising their freedom of expression cannot continue their education. How were you able to continue your education during your detention? You mentioned on Twitter that you graduated  in prison, can you talk about being a student in prison?

GG: When I was detained, the state of emergency practices were in force. I wrote a petition to the prison administration stating that I wanted to take my exams and learned that the exams cannot be held until the state of emergency is lifted. My graduation was delayed for a year because I could not take the final exams. After the state of emergency was lifted, the university sent the exam papers to the education unit of the prison by email. I took the exam in a classroom reserved for education and they scanned the exam papers and sent it to the university. I took the exams this way. But they didn’t give me most of my books on the grounds that they were “too thick”. “If you want, we can even divide the book in two and give it that way” they said. I was obliged to accept. After my first semester grades were entered into the system, the Rectorate of Marmara University sent me a letter and I learned that “since I am detained and  I did not comply with the continuation requirement specified in the regulation, the  grades of the courses I enrolled in before would be deleted.” Although the regulation states the condition of attendance, we did not have to actually attend classes. When we are detained, suddenly everyone suddenly wants to apply the law(!). The grades of 9 out of the 12 courses I took would be deleted, I was devastated. Later, my friends from school met with the Dean’s Office and the board of directors decided that this decision could be applied in the next term. My grades were considered valid. In the next semester, only 3 of my courses were covered by this decision, I can say that I graduated at the last minute by taking 3 course exams (1)  after I was released.

CSSA: How did studying in the law department and having the support of  your fellow students affect your education in prison?

GG: The law department is based on reading. Since my only material was course notes and books, it is possible to obtain them. If I was a student in a department based on practice and experiments, it would be  impossible to continue my education in prison. For example, when I initially requested to be taken to the university for exams, my request was rejected “for safety reasons”. I was in the objectionable category because I was staying in the political ward. In fact, my friend,  a student of Istanbul University Law Faculty who was staying in the same ward with me, could not take their exams for the same reason. I was  lucky. I can say that there was a group of lawyers supporting me outside so that I could attend my courses and continue my education. The friends shared the work to bring me my notes, to come to see me in prison, to contact the university, to convey this information to me. I went through this process in solidarity with my friends. Without them, the process would have been much more painful. 

CSSA: We can not get clear information about the number of detained and convicted students. We also can hardly get any information about the  problems of the imprisoned students, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. What are your impressions on this subject? How do you consider the limited access to information on the situation of students in prison?

GG: Since the Covid-19 pandemic has begun, the number of cases has been announced every day. However, no specific data is provided on the situation in prisons. So much so that at the beginning of the epidemic, when positive case news came from prisons, prison administrations were specifically requested for information. In fact, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu (2) was the person most interested in this issue. However, there has never been a detailed explanation of the current situation. Although some prisoners’ families tried to record phone calls and affect public opinion on this matter, they could not make their voices heard. There was news that in some prisons detainees and prisoners were not given cleaning materials and masks and that they were forced to buy them from the canteen at exorbitant prices. We do not even know whether these problems are solved, as there is no transparent information provided. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our primary need is to stay healthy. And I don’t even want to think about the problems with education when we are not even aware of the current situation. Rights violations in prisons were one of the issues that were not covered in the press even before the pandemic. If many rights are violated even at the detention, unfortunately, violations experienced during detention remain secondary. We have even come to regard arrest as normal and what happens in prison seems even more normal to us which is very dangerous. Of course, there are many NGOs and commissions dealing with this issue, but those who hear their voices are the people already sensitive to this issue.

CSSA: You are an intern lawyer who was detained during your education. How can public opinion be formed about this process, what can be done? What is your opinion? What would you like to say to students who are in prison for exercising their freedom of expression, association and assembly?

GG: In order to draw attention to this issue, I think there is a need for coordinated work that will ensure the flow of information between detainees/convicts, their relatives, lawyers, members of parliaments, NGOs and journalists. When I was detained, the most challenging thing for me was waiting for days for an answer to a question I raised. Besides, since I am a lawyer, there were  numerous lawyers around me and to communicate with outside was easier to me. I even had friends who came to visit to chat. Someone who does not have such an environment will undoubtedly have a weaker connection with outside. However, this convenience should not be a chance and every student who is detained for political reasons should have a feeling that they would never be alone. They would be sure that they would be visited frequently when they are detained and that there would be people who will make an effort to solve their problems. If people are detained for their thoughts, there are two main purposes: first, to make them doubt their thoughts, to make them feel guilty and lonely, secondly, to declare those people guilty in public, and to send a message to those who have similar thoughts. To eliminate this two-way attack I think it is our duty to keep the motivation of the prisoners high and to make their voices heard. I can humbly say the following to my imprisoned friends; we are the weeds in a fenced garden, we will either be tamed and look beyond the fence with longing, or we will bring the one next to us into the wind and lie behind the fences.  Let’s keep our mind and body lively all the time, we will definitely get together and do everything together. 

CSSA: Finally, do you think that you were supported sufficiently through the process of your detention? What do you expect from civil society regarding the solidarity with imprisoned students? Do you think you were supported by civil society during the trial process?

GG: As I mentioned, I did not feel lonely as there were numerous lawyers around me. However, most of these visits were within the framework of friendship. The Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) deputy Utku Çakırözer came to visit a journalist friend of ours staying in the same ward to bring the issue to the attention of the media and to create public opinion . He was only visiting journalists, but when my wardmate said: “We have a friend who was a Marmara University Faculty of Law student” and he told columnist Emre Kongar about me, who then wrote about my case in his column. Apart from that, Punto 24 Trial Monitoring  followed our hearings on its twitter account and spread the word.  Regarding  the students arrested for exercising their freedom of expression; a solidarity network with representatives on almost every campus should be established and there should be coverage on the detained students, and then the lawyers, members of parliament and journalists who are also included in this network should try to be the voice of the students by spreading information, creating public opinion and through reporting.

CSSA: Thank you for participating in our interview Gönül.

With solidarity….

1) It is a right given to students who have taken all the courses in the program they are enrolled in and who have failed/conditionally passed at most 3 courses and who are able to graduate if they give these courses.
2) Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu: Doctor, human rights activist, writer, journalist and politician. The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) member of parliament for Kocaeli