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Of prisoners’ rights

November 14, 2013

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THE eminently sound recommendations adopted at the recent Federal Judicial Academy seminar on prisoners’ vulnerability should not fail to move the government to take up the long-delayed task of doing justice to one of the most neglected segments of society.

The seminar was remarkable for the attention the prisoners’ cause received from the judges of the apex court. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry pleaded for respect for prisoners’ inviolable dignity, Justice Mushir Alam criticised harsh punishments for petty offences, Justice Jawad Khawaja dwelt on cruelty towards them, and Justice Nasirul Mulk stressed convicts’ post-release rehabilitation.

One hopes the relevant authorities in government will have time to study the detailed reports of the seminar and the will and inclination to do their duty.

All discussions on prisons and prisoners begin with references to overcrowding in jails, a topic on which Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court spoke at some length. That 52,318 prisoners should be forced to rot in Punjab’s jails that have a total capacity of only 21,527 is simply unbearable.

Despite much noise about plans to reduce overcrowding in prisons, the problem remains as acute as ever. While there were 49,889 prisoners in Punjab’s jails at the end of 2012 against a capacity of 21,527, in Sindh there were 14,119 prisoners against a capacity of 11,939.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the number of prisoners (8,113) was marginally higher than the capacity (7,996) and in Balochistan the difference between prison population (2,483) and capacity (2,473) was even lower — only 10. And in Gilgit-Baltistan there were only 260 prisoners in jails that could house 645 detainees.

Overcrowding in prisons is essentially a Punjab problem. In 30 out the 32 jails in the province, the number of prisoners exceeded the capacity (at the end of 2012) by 200pc in seven jails and by 100pc in 11 jails, while in the Multan district jail the number of prisoners was 350pc higher than the capacity.

Since Punjab is not a cash-starved province and threats to its jails are much less serious than elsewhere, its failure to address the problem of overcrowding denotes a major failure of governance.

That overcrowding in jails aggravates the suffering of certain categories of prisoners more than others is known. The worst affected are juveniles and death-row prisoners. Women prisoners, too, need special care.

As has often been pointed out, prison conditions can be radically improved by reducing the population of undertrials. Out of the Punjab prison population of 49,889, as many as 32,108 — two-thirds of the total — were yet to be convicted.

A large number of these undertrials should not be in prison at all. They are made to suffer for three shortcomings of the state: a tendency to throw every suspect into prison and open abuse of the remand procedures; an unreasonably harsh bail regime; and unconscionable delays in the disposal of cases. Reform in all three areas has long been overdue. While on the subject one may invite the attention of the lawmakers to the patently unjust and oppressive vagrancy law. It is inhuman to throw in jail anyone who has neither a home nor a job. No civilised society can treat its homeless and jobless people as criminals.

If anybody is to be punished for their condition it is the managers of public affairs. An end to the indiscriminate use of Sections 109 and 110 of the CrPc should reduce the jail population.

Traditionally, attention has been paid to prisons in the settled districts of the country, whereas conditions in the tribal areas are indescribably worse. The jails and lock-ups there have not yet been placed under the prison department and everyone visiting these detention centres has described them as torture chambers.

There is also a need to review the conditions of detention at special internment centres, set up under the Actions in Aid of Civil Power Regulation. Complaints of overcrowding in small rooms, lack of ventilation and poor sanitation facilities were made by the families of detainees that had been allowed access to them under Supreme Court orders.

The question of conditions at ‘special’ detention centres is likely to cause greater concern when the provisions of the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance for detaining convicts at places other than regular prisons are enforced.

Pakistan’s prisons, with their oppressive rules, rampant corruption, discrimination between rich and poor, and unbridled resort to violence, only present a microcosm of the general state of affairs in the country. There is no rational communication between the jailers and the detainees, just as there is no meaningful discourse between the rulers and the citizens.

The debate now is dominated by fears of militants’ attacks on jails. These concerns do need to be given priority but nothing should be allowed to interfere with prisoners’ rights and dignity. No offender, and certainly no one who is merely a suspect, should be made to suffer more than what the law prescribes.

The most pernicious feature of the prison system is perseverance with the regime of retributive justice and emphasis on humiliating the detainees, a system based on retaliation and reprisal, as the chief justice pointed out.

There was a time when prisoners were sought to be reformed by encouraging them to acquire education and useful skills. Some sort of educational facilities are still available in principal prisons but the vocational training and industrial sections in most jails have been closed down.

Besides enabling prisoners to earn some money during incarceration and yielding government revenue from the sale of jail products — blankets, radio sets, carpets, furniture, et al — these sections helped prisoners to improve their capacity for making an honest living besides learning the benefits of teamwork.

A revival of such activities should not be put off because of threats from extremists. Indeed, schemes of productive labour in jails might be one of the better ways of reclaiming misguided militants.