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When the jailbirds sing

September 07, 2014

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Prisoners peer out from behind the bars
Prisoners peer out from behind the bars

Jails are like hospitals. Or so says Noman Rasheed, a one-time inmate at the Central Prison Karachi, among the largest jails in the country. “When you are hospitalised, your life is restricted to those four walls of your room. Living in a jail is exactly like that. Sometimes, passing time is a chore. And you wait for when your loved ones might arrive to see you, and you wonder what they’ll bring with them. The more money you pay, the better your room, facilities and care provided to you.”

The entire week is spent waiting for the day when family — parents, their wives, children — will visit, bring home-cooked food or even surprise them with mithai or a paan.

“Meeting your loved ones is the one day every inmate waits for, and it’s also the one time that jail authorities know they can exploit prisoners. Think about how humiliating it is for men to meet their children with their handcuffs on,”

says Rasheed.

Both Rasheed and his younger brother, politically associated with the same party, have been incarcerated at Central Prison in separate stints. From experience, Rasheed describes the prisons system to be run by an “establishment” – comprising police, court staff and jail staff. The cycle starts at the level of investigation officer (IO) at a police station (thana), followed by judicial staff, who decide what kind of charges are to be imposed and when hearings are set; and then there is jail staff.

Each has a separate domain, and any prisoner who lands in the punitive justice system must negotiate their way through the establishment. Each arm of this establishment, claims Rasheed, needs to be greased for the system to inch forward. “Jitna gur, utna meetha,” he shrugs matter-of-factly.

Life inside a prison is not the nightmare it is made out to be, says Rasheed, lonely as it may be at first.

“Jails are a place where a man’s hidden talents often surface. Suddenly, a singer is born, a chef, a gardener, an artist ... nobody’s talents are hidden any more. They begin to express them, because now, they have the time to do so.”

It seems Rasheed’s special talent is in crafting analogies. “When you are travelling on a train, along with a group of unknowns, you tend to develop a relationship with them because your focus is the same. If you have stopped at a station, you can always ask them to refill your flask if they are going to fill theirs. You start getting to know strangers.”


When Shamsur Rehman* first came to Karachi, back in 2012, he arrived as a desperate 22-year-old man, in search of a livelihood that could enable him to send money back to Mardan. He found employment in a private security agency, courtesy a recommendation by a relative from his village. With long duty hours but a pittance for a living, Rehman soon got dragged by two associates in a plan to commit a robbery using the weapons that were provided by the security agency.

The three men entered a house with the intention of robbery, but amateurs as they were, they did not realise that the owners of the house had private security of their own. The trio were nabbed and handed over to the police.

“They sent me to the Central Prison. My village people did not want to see me or associate with me. Nobody really came enquiring after me. So I knew that whatever I had to do, I had to do it alone.”

Inside the prison, however, Rehman found a political party that claimed to protect the rights of his ethnic group. He signed up. Soon, he was part of a group of chefs cooking a meal for some 60 others. He did not have to pay the group leader any money, his work in the kitchen was compensation in lieu.

But now, the political party was taking care of him. Nobody in Central Prison Karachi could hurt Rehman. Nobody would even dare.


People aren’t just directly inducted into parties or given patronage. There is an entire rite of passage, explains Rasheed, which includes parties first ascertaining personal details and running background checks. This is to ensure each entrant is legit, and is not a policeman or a spy from another political group.

But once in, the party takes care of everything.

Parties inside the prisons enjoy a patron-client relationship with the jail administration: jail administrations find it easier to deal with one representative than hundreds of individuals. Each political group has a leader; this person interacts and negotiates directly with jail staff, and often carries orders back to his group. The group leader also takes charge of new inductions, assigning them to designated jobs. When a senior leader or a key operative arrives in prison, even temporarily, the group leader also takes care of providing security to them, in their separate quarters.

Great care is taken inside the Central Prison not to let political groups interact — the administration does not want tempers to boil over and for different groups to clash. Therefore, each political party has a designated area where they are housed, have a kitchen and have separate toilets and washrooms. Facilities such as a barber are intentionally kept mobile; haircuts and beard trims all happen in inmates’ cells. Internal crime rates are said to have decreased because of how inmates are organised into separate political units.

“Organised parties play the same role inside prisons that they play outside,” argues Rasheed. “They brief new members about jail etiquettes, they teach, they even train individuals. Nobody is weak inside, everyone comes with political support.”


Jamil Ali* was fond of frequenting prostitutes, a predilection that landed him in jail back in 2007. But even in incarceration, Ali couldn’t stop. As it turned out, there was a way inside the prisons to fulfil his passion: men jailers would contact women jailers, a young woman prostitute arranged for an agreed upon sum, and the client and seller were both moved to a separate cell. Even married men availed the service: their in-jail requests were processed much quicker than official requests.

Ali stayed in prison for the next six years.


“There is an entire economy inside the Central Jail; your happiness inside depends on how much money you have and whether you have any political association,” claims Rasheed.

“You want drugs? Alcohol? Women? No problem, if you have money. The jail staff can arrange everything.”

Not paying money is not an option. When an inmate is both poor and without political association, jail staff tend to intimidate and break them down.

“There were people whose families took on loans, just so their loved ones would be spared the harassment,”

says Rasheed.

Then there are those who willingly return to a prison, because they end up doing booming business from within. Rasheed narrates that many inmates are hired for robbery or murder jobs, which they fulfil by greasing the guards’ palms with a share of their earnings. As Rasheed explains, there is greater advantage in committing crime this way: on paper, they are physically in prison and cannot possibly have committed the crime in question.

“The entire jail knows what robbery or killing will be committed in the city the next day. Once, an inmate committed a robbery and returned back to the jail by evening. But a few weeks later, a newbie was brought to the jail. When he told us what he had been charged with, we all laughed: it was the same robbery that our fellow inmate had committed. The newbie had been framed,” Rasheed chuckled.


While Rasheed likens jails to hospitals, some inmates treat private hospitals as their jails. “A political leader was recently charged with murder — apparently he was drunk, and he shot someone. He was brought to Karachi from Hyderabad,” narrates Razzak Zuberi*, a former jail official.

But the man did not have to spend a night inside the prison. His paperwork showed that he needed medical treatment, and he was shifted to a private hospital. Two rooms were booked, one for the prisoner and another for the jail staff that had come with him. At night, the accused would often leave the hospital premises, go home or even for dinner.

“Then there were some gangsters of Kala Pul. When they were first brought to the prisons, they brought a four-wheel drive with them and gave it to the jailer. Almost every night, they were allowed to return home, party all night and be back before morning,” claims Zuberi.


Some jailers were notorious for their cruelty. One legend is that of Zulm ka Baadshah (King of Oppression). “He stopped at a cinema once, near Teen Hatti. He conned a boy who was not from Karachi into thinking that he belonged to his village, took him to a magistrate for police custody and even had the boy sentenced. That boy was innocent,” says Zuberi.

“But this man suffered a bad end. He was hit by a trailer near Sohrab Goth in a road traffic accident. His body was not found in a single piece.”

Another jailer whose tales ring around Central Jail is Jin Chacha: a flamboyant man, he would drink like a mule and would go around screaming and assaulting all whom he laid his eyes on. His trademark move was to bite people.

“Nowadays, there is less harassment or intimidation; a prison is more a service of sorts, for which you are charged whether you like it or not,” says Rasheed. “Disciplining usually happens through parties; the more organised ones tend to send a daily or weekly ledger back to their headquarters. When you accept a party’s help, you are bound by their discipline and rules.”

“Everything that is available inside the prison is available outside as well: drugs, alcohol, women, even betting. Everything is happening out in the open. The sad part is that the police are themselves involved in all these trades, but catch regular people for taking part in them. Everyone is doing the same thing inside the prison, but some people are being punished for it. There is something wrong with the law, it has double standards.”

*Names changed to protect privacy and anonymity

The writer tweets at @ASYusuf