When solitary confinement is really solitary.

When solitary confinement is really solitary.

When solitary confinement is really solitary.

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 12 2005 6:53 PM

A Prison for One?

When solitary confinement really means solitary confinement.

No man is an island—except this guy. Click image to expand.
No man is an island—except this guy

On Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the 1999 trial of Kurdish dissident leader Abdullah Ocalan was "unfair." Ocalan had been detained on the island of İmralı in the months leading up to his trial, with little opportunity to meet with lawyers and prepare his case. Since arriving on the remote island, located 30 miles from Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara, Ocalan has been its sole inmate. There's a whole island for just one person?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Yep. The Turkish government considers Ocalan a dangerous terrorist, blaming him for the deaths of more than 30,000 people. İmralı only became a one-man prison when he got there; from the 1930s, it had been a low-security prison for small-time criminals. Up until Ocalan's capture, about 250 inmates lived on the 4-square-mile island of pine groves and sandy beaches. They worked in agriculture, herding sheep and growing olives for sale on the mainland. When Ocalan arrived, these inmates were shipped elsewhere, and the prison guards were replaced with elite commandos. İmralı and the surrounding waters are now closed to all nongovernment air and sea traffic.

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Ocalan is locked in a 140-square-foot cell with a bed, table, shower, toilet, and climate-control system. He has a window that provides some fresh air and an enclosed outdoor exercise area that he is permitted to visit for an hour or two each day. Ocalan has said that the intense humidity of the island has caused him respiratory problems, but a team of international observers has found him to be in good physical health.

The observers have expressed concern over the mental effects of prolonged solitary confinement. According to the Turkish government, Ocalan interacts with a psychiatrist and with prison "staff members skilled and experienced in human relations," who have "daily conversations with the prisoner at specific times." On Wednesdays, his lawyers and family members can board a boat from the Turkish coast—the İmralı-9—and pay him hour-long, supervised visits. (The government has repeatedly canceled these visits on account of bad weather.)

Island prisons for only one person are quite rare. Berlin's Spandau Prison was demolished after the 1987 death of Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess, who had been the prison's lone inmate for more than 20 years. In 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, though it was hardly a prison. By the terms of his exile, he became a local emperor, with a court and a retinue of soldiers; he escaped the following year. (İmralı has seen some escapes: The Turkish filmmaker and political prisoner Yilmaz Güney once made it off the island—he later won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or for a film based on the experience.)

There are plenty of famous island prisons for more than one person. The French once sent prisoners—including Alfred Dreyfus—to Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana. South Africa sent Nelson Mandela and many others to the notorious apartheid prison at Robben Island. And, of course, the United States sent dangerous inmates like Al "Scarface" Capone to serve their time at Alcatraz.

Explainer thanks Dorit Radzin with Human Rights Watch.