Most people who have seen Midnight Express get a Hollywood version of Turkey’s justice and corrections system in the 1970s, showing it to be extremely brutal and inhumane. The Black Sea city of Sinop gives visitors the opportunity to go inside an actual Turkish prison to judge for themselves – however, without the prisoners.
The notorious Sinop Cezaevi is a prison that was built into a castle built by the Selçuks in 1215. The modern prison was built in 1882 with the juvenile wing added in 1939. The prison hosted some prominent Turkish journalists, authors, and poets over the years. In 1979 a prison riot led to a large fire that left most of the prison damaged. It was then abandoned. Some Turkish TV programs were shot in the prison and it later opened as a museum after 1999.
For just 5TL, I visited this extremely photogenic prison stuck in time since 1979. For almost two hours I let my imagination wander. Most of the time, I had entire cell blocks and rooms all to myself which made the tour all the more uncomfortable. It was one of the eeriest tourist attractions I’ve ever visited.
My tour of the prison started with an original dungeon from the old Selçuk castle. There were chains on the wall to shackle prisoners by their arms and feet.
Next was the visiting area. Under the watchful eye of the guards, prisoners would meet with visitors in booths behind a pane of glass.
The prison office had several rooms that seemed to be exactly as they were when the prison was abandoned. The file room, doctor’s office, warden’s office, and a break room were all set up neatly to look ready for use.
From the office, I toured the cell blocks. I was able to spot guard houses, watch towers, loudspeakers along tall walls with barbed wire lining the tops.
Inside some of the cell blocks were horrible little cells where some prisoners were kept. The rooms were the size of a closet and had only a latrine inside. Other rooms had bunk beds and a dining area.
Outside of the cell blocks were recreational areas. There were workout benches, pull-up bars, and basketball courts. A workshop for making crafts, a mess hall, barber shop, and even a Turkish hamam were also on the grounds.
If you look closely at the walls of the old castle, it’s easy to see that the Selçuks pieced it together by plundering ancient sites and other buildings. There are many pieces of old temples including columns and plaques with Greek script on them. There are also a few plaques with Arabic script on them.
Perhaps the scariest part of the prison was the solitary confinement wing. In this part, I encountered a hallway full of tiny cells that were behind heavy metal doors without windows. I could almost hear the shouting and screaming of the prisoners as I walked through.
Near solitary confinement was the juvenile wing. It was a little more forgiving than the rest of the prison. There was also a small prayer room encouraging inmates to pray. Officials believed giving the children God would correct their behavior.
The most popular part of the prison is outside the juvenile wing. A rusted out prison bus sits in the yard, tires flattened and seats ripped out, its fate echoing that of the prison’s.
While not a typical tourist attraction, Sinop Cezaevi gives a visitor a look at a different aspect of Turkish society. I wasn’t expecting much but I was mesmerized by the chance to see how prisoners lived and the prison system worked. There wasn’t much information listed along the way, but it was easy to imagine how things might have been.
I can imagine many things have changed in the Turkish correctional system since 1979. At the same time, however, some things have not changed. Sinop Cezaevi was known as a prison to many journalists. To this day Turkey is perennially one of the leading jailers of journalists in the entire world.