My Personal ‘Midnight Express’
An American in Turkey’s Prisons. In for a Crime? No, in for a Dollar.
Since the July coup attempt, the Turkish president’s vindictive paranoia knows no bounds, and Americans are among the victims in his stifling jails.
The second in a series of articles about the author’s experiences in Turkish prisons and the people she met there, from a NASA scientist to a member of the so-called Islamic State. Read Part One here, and Part Three here.
I’d gone days without real sleep. The adrenaline that sustained me throughout my escape from al Qaeda was quickly being replaced by a more profound exhaustion than I’d ever experienced. I’d been in Turkey’s custody for 15 hours without food, water, or rest. And the day was far from over.
The Turkish guard approached me with handcuffs and tightened them around my wrists. I was taken before the public prosecutor again. He shot me a smug smile and told me they’d be investigating my case for an indeterminate amount of time, and that I’d be spending this time in prison.
But first, we stopped at a hospital.
In Turkey, when suspects are questioned or moved to or from a prison, they are taken to the hospital. Ostensibly, this is so an impartial doctor can examine the suspects to ensure that interrogating officers did not harm them. In reality, it’s a pointless exercise in which guards parade the suspect into a crowded emergency room and find a doctor walking by to sign off on a form attesting to the person’s physical wellness.
The officers walked me into the decrepit hospital. I was still handcuffed. One of the officers went to get a doctor to come over to us. “English?” he asked. I nodded. “Are you OK?”
“Well, I escaped from al Qaeda in Syria about three days ago and haven’t slept since, I haven’t eaten in about 24 hours, and I feel like I’m in a nightmare.”
One of the Jandarma officers rolled his eyes. “You are fine, we know,” he said. With that, I was taken back to the vehicle. A new female guard was waiting. They removed my handcuffs and then handcuffed one of my wrists and one of the guard’s.
“Is this because I escaped from al Qaeda?” I asked. “You’re afraid I’m going to try to escape from you?” No one answered.
After a couple of hours on the road, we approached the prison, a stark cluster of buildings and razor wire. “You have been brought here because there is no high security prison closer to Antakya that is open now,” the translator explained to me.
“High security?” I asked. “Why is this necessary? I’m just a journalist!” The translator snorted and shook his head.
Inside, I was taken into a room by two female guards and strip-searched again. Then, they confiscated the few things that hadn’t already been taken from me.
“Can’t I have my toothbrush? Deodorant?”
They shook their heads. “You must buy everything from the prison kantin,” the translator explained. “You cannot do that until Monday. It is Saturday today.”
I was taken to an empty cell with a lone mattress. The guards handed me a small bar of soap and shut the door. Absolutely exhausted, I fell asleep almost immediately.
In the morning, I surveyed my surroundings. The cellblock was two floors. Below my cell was another cell. Directly across from these were two identical cells. Three women were held across from me. To my surprise, there were men in the cell underneath them. I stood in front of the window that night, and a man waved to me from the bottom cell across from me. I’d heard him speaking Arabic, so I assumed he was Syrian. “İngilizce?” he asked me. English?
“Hello?” a male voice from the cell under me said. “Do you speak English?” There were hints of a native Turkish accent with distinct affectations of American English.
“Yes. Hello,” I called back.
“Ah! You are American? I thought you were British. I am American, too. My name is Serkan. Why are you here?” I gave him an abbreviated version of my story.
“It’s the coup attempt… the state of emergency,” he said. “They are arresting a lot of people. I was visiting my family here in Hatay, and I had a flight back to Houston just after this coup attempt—I work for NASA in Houston—and they picked me up at the airport. They told me they had information that I was involved. I was held in a tiny detention center cell alone for two weeks before this and questioned every day.
“They searched my family’s home once, and found nothing. A week later, they went back and searched it again. This time, they said they found a dollar bill. And because of that dollar bill, they are saying I am CIA.”
“What?” I said, stunned. “They’re saying that a dollar bill is evidence that you’re a CIA agent?”
Serkan laughed. “Yes. They are saying anyone who has a dollar bill after this coup attempt is a member of Fethullah Gülen’s organization.”
The dollar bill phenomenon deserves some explanation. Later in my incarceration, I saw Turkish news stories explaining that the serial number on a dollar bill served as a sort of membership number for Gülen’s followers. I’d also learn that a number of Turkish-American dual citizens, like Serkan, were being held in prison in Turkey, accused of being CIA agents involved in the coup attempt, because they had dollar bills in their wallets or homes.
The mythology is absurd. Anyone traveling between America and Turkey will have dollar bills, because it would be impractical to change such small currency into Turkish Lira.
But all this was new information to me in the prison. My mind was racing. If a dollar bill was evidence that someone was a CIA agent, the American government sending two helicopters for an American journalist in Syria, as Washington tried to do, was probably even worse.
“I feel like I’m in a shitty action movie,” I called down to Serkan. “The American government sent two helicopters to try to rescue me in Syria… I bet Turkey thinks I’m CIA, too.”
“It’s possible, but don’t lose hope,” he said. “Look, I know I’m going to be here for a while.” Serkan said the American consulate hadn’t been able to visit him. Turkey doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, and thus considered him exclusively Turkish.
At this point, a female guard caught us speaking and forbade either of us to go near the windows again.
They moved Serkan the next day. Before he left, he called up to me one last time. “Lindsey, I’m not supposed to talk to you, but I just wanted to let you know that they’re moving me. Good luck.”
Serkan—his full name is Serkan Golge, 36, a NASA physicist—remains in prison. At the time of my release in October, the U.S. consulate hadn’t gained any access to him.
After my release, I spoke to Ebby Abramson, project manager at Endangered Scholars Worldwide, an advocacy group that has been working along with the Committee of Concerned Scientists, actively following Serkan’s case and petitioning the State Department on his behalf.
“It’s so strange to me that no one covered Serkan’s case,” said Abramson. “Not the Turkish media, and not the Western media, either. To be honest, I was expecting him to be released by late August. It’s a really grim situation.”
Days in prison were long and depressing. The August heat was unbearable, exacerbated by the fluorescent lights that blazed above me 24 hours a day. I stewed in a perpetual pool of sweat, and my body broke out in a heat rash. I wasn’t allowed to purchase deodorant, a razor, nail clippers, or tweezers, which left me animal, feral. I was, however, allowed to buy cigarettes. Halfway through my first week, I was smoking about a pack a day.
I was rarely provided a translator. The guards often opted to yell streams of Turkish at me, assuming that I was a spy, and as such, that I was fluent in Turkish. When I filled out a form requesting items from the kantin, like shampoo and toothpaste in Turkish, this assumption was strengthened. I was questioned during a rare translator visit. “I lived in Istanbul for a year and a half. I bought groceries. Of course I know the word for shampoo!” I argued to the translator. She shook her head and laughed.
“Sure, Snell,” she said.
Even after my conversation with Serkan, I believed the American government would work to release me quickly. But the first visit from American consular personnel shattered my delusion immediately. Two women from the Adana office came a week after my arrest.
“Why am I still here?” I asked them immediately. They shifted uncomfortably.
“Um, well, your charge is crossing into a forbidden military zone,” one of the women said, glancing down at a notebook. “So, um, we’re following your case…”
I cut her off. “Are you serious? The American and Turkish governments had an agreement to let me cross out. The FBI assured me I wouldn’t be detained. You’re pretending this is a real case?” More squirming.
“That would be above our level. The information we’re giving you is what we know. We’re just here for a routine consular visit.” My head was spinning. The woman continued. “I can tell you that your case has received a lot of high-level attention!”
“Because I’m an American journalist unjustly imprisoned in Turkey, or because I was just held by al Qaeda and they want information about that?” I asked.
“Um, I think because of who you were held by in Syria… that reminds me… I am supposed to ask if you might be willing to meet with a government official about your time in Syria.”
It’s worth noting that at this point, there were multiple Turkish news articles calling me a CIA agent. In one especially absurd story, the Hurriyet Daily News said that I’d been wounded on a mission in Syria and the Turkish military rescued me.
At the time, I didn’t know any of this. I was in prison with no contact with the outside world. But the American government knew—and they still attempted to pump me for intel while I was being held in prison, accused of being a CIA agent.
“Not a chance. While I’m in a Turkish prison? Are you seriously asking me this?” I replied.
“So, not even a general debrief about where you were?” she pressed.
“Not a chance.” Our meeting ended shortly after. They asked if I needed anything, and I told them I was in desperate need of clothing. They promised to bring some.
They never did. I spent almost two months in the black abaya and leggings I’d worn while escaping from al Qaeda. (I’d asked for books, too, and to their credit, a month and a half later, they managed to bring me a paperback about a cat that solves murder mysteries, a Christian novella about the myth of evolution, and a thriller about animals genetically modified for biological warfare. I read each of them more than a dozen times.)
Ten more days passed with no news and no visits. On Day 17, two lawyers and a translator (hired by the Committee to Protect Journalists) visited me. “They really seem to think you’re a CIA agent,” the translator started. “This is hard to ask, but… do you have any ties to the CIA? The FBI? Mossad?”
I had to laugh. “No,” I said. “Never.”
“OK,” he said. “Don’t worry. We have just started work on your case. We’ll go and talk to the judge.” I asked if they had news about my husband.
The translator cast his eyes down. “Your husband was in Turkey. Well, he is in Turkey. The police went to your apartment and tore it apart. They took all of your electronics. And they arrested your husband.”
I could barely breathe. “What? Why?!”
“Because they found a few dollar bills in a piece of your furniture.”