Jail reforms – 01 Feb 2023

In a country where the term ‘prison reforms’ rarely finds its place in the national conversation, incidents like the Gujrat jail riots do not come as a surprise. On January 23, when the entire country was plunged into darkness due to a countrywide power breakdown, the Gujrat prison saw a scuffle between police officials and inmates. Initial reports suggest that senior police officers played a crucial role in provoking riots. Around 250 prisoners have been booked for rioting. Soon after the incident, authorities deployed a heavy contingent of police. And while such measures may restore calm for a while, they are not long-term solutions to the problems prisoners face. Untoward incidents are not uncommon in jails – but mostly what happens inside the prison stays there. People in Pakistan often advocate for harsh prison terms with no compassion for the incarcerated.

The five-member team formed to investigate the matter has found that the misbehaviour of senior jail officials triggered the fight. And inmates lost their patience when an official slapped a prisoner after harsh words over a minor issue. This is not the first time that this particular jail has seen a fight between officials and prisoners. A similar incident happened a couple of years ago, but no action was taken by the higher authorities to avoid its repeat. Most police officials are also guilty of professional misconduct. It is high time we started to look at prisons as correction centres, not concentration centres. The recent riots have resulted in severe damage and destruction of jail property as rioters turned violet and burnt down the call centre, close-circuit cameras, filtration plant, and pieces of furniture.

But this incident should be taken as a wakeup call, urging authorities to introduce prison reforms. The first should be regular jail inspections with a view to improving conditions. Strict action should be taken against officials involved in accepting bribes. It is equally important to listen to the problems faced by jail inmates. If they face misbehaviour from jail staff and senior officials, they have little to no options for redressal. Most jails in the country are overcrowded and lack basic facilities. Such practices are detrimental to the very purpose of prisons that should serve as places where inmates gain some guidance to improve their lives in the future instead of becoming hardened criminals. Reactive measures such as punishing prisoners for justified or unjustified reasons is not the solution, a long-term improvement plan for jail across Pakistan is needed.

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