FRIDAY'S ruling by the Federal Shariat Court recognising the fundamental rights of prisoners raises hopes that the appalling conditions in Pakistani jails may improve in due course. The FSC held that married prisoners should be allowed conjugal visits at special facilities within jail premises or be released on short parole to visit their families. Among other measures, the FSC took notice of overcrowding in prison cells and also asked provincial governments to double the dietary allowance for inmates. The FSC's ruling is a welcome development which ought to be implemented in letter and spirit. Prison reform needs urgent attention and much has to be done to give prisoners their basic rights.
To its credit, the current government has made some headway in this regard, with the PM championing the cause of prison reform from day one. Drawing on his own experience in prison, Mr Gilani said last year that “Jails should act as reformation centres instead of producing hardened criminals.” Prisoners live in “inhuman conditions”, he lamented, and many spend years behind bars without ever being produced in court. He stressed the need for vocational training of inmates and asked for an overhaul of the outdated Pakistan Prison Rules. The Gilani administration also decided to free all inmates who had served their sentences but remained incarcerated because they could not pay their fines. All outstanding dues were settled by the centre. The Supreme Court has also made its presence felt. In May this year, the chief justice visited the Lahore and Karachi central jails. About a month later the SC ruled that barring certain types of offences, prisoners' sentences would begin from the time of arrest and not the day of conviction.
Overcrowding is perhaps the single biggest problem plaguing the prison system. Besides suffering the agony of living in extremely cramped quarters, prisoners charged with petty crimes come into contact with hardened outlaws. Ultimately the minor offender leaves jail embittered by his experience and armed with the knowledge needed to begin a career in heavyweight crime. Overcrowding also leads to the spread of contagious diseases, particularly skin ailments. Meanwhile, negligence or 'oversight' on the part of jail staff leaves inmates, particularly the younger ones, at the mercy of sexual predators. Drug abuse too is rampant. Judicial and police reforms are a must if the root problem of overcrowding is to be addressed. Our prisons are bursting at the seams because the police often fail to produce the accused before a court and even more so due to drawn-out trials. The country's prisons cannot be made habitable without clearing court backlogs.