Houses of horror – 03 Apr 2023

THE idea behind correctional facilities should be the reformation of prisoners, especially those held for petty crimes. However, in Pakistan, the state of jails is such that reformation is out of the question, with overcrowded, insanitary prisons presenting a horrific picture of neglect and abuse.

As highlighted in Human Rights Watch`s recently released report A Nightmare for Everyone, Pakistan`s prisons are severely overcrowded, while even basic facilities are unavailable for prisoners. The report says that while the country`s 116 prisons have a capacity for approximately 65,000 inmates, the actual prison population is over 88,000. This results in a lack of hygiene in jails, with prisoners vulnerable to disease, particularly TB.

Rodent and insect infestations are common in cells, while the food is substandard. Women prisoners are particularly at risk, as they are vulnerable to abuse by male prison staff. Women`s hygiene needs are also ignored. As the report points out, the Islamabad High Court had observed that overcrowded jails and insanitary conditions are `tantamount to cruel and inhuman treatment`. Yet their lordships` keen observations have failed to move the authorities.

The state must realise that prisoners, many of them under trial, are human beings and cannot be robbed of their dignity. While transforming Pakistan`s jails into the advanced facilities some Nordic nations have created may be a tall ask, it does not mean that prison cells have to resemble the dungeons of the mediaeval era. The initial focus should be on reducing overcrowding and improving health conditions within prisons, while in the longer term, the goal should be to help prisoners overcome criminal tendencies. HRW has made several recommendations in this regard, observing that `broad structural changes` are needed. For example, the rights body says that to reduce overcrowding, early release laws should be implemented, while bail laws should be reformed. In particular, it says that `non-custodial alternatives` should be considered for non-violent petty crimes and firsttime offenders. Speeding up trials can also help. HRW adds that the number of health professionals dedicated to prisoners` healthcare should be increased. As the report notes, 105 posts for prison medical officers were vacant, out of 193. It has also been recommended that independent mechanisms be created to hold to account prison officials accused of abuse. Undertaking these reforms is not difficult if the state has the will to improve the situation within its correctional facilities.

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