Caged: Behind the walls of Pakistan's prisons

For the thousands of prisoners living on death row, each new day is filled with fear for the future.
Published September 7, 2014

Between life and death

For the thousands of prisoners living on death row, each new day is filled with fear for the future

By Irfan Aslam

For the last 14 years, Zulfikar has called Death Row home. Convicted of murder, his appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court and since then he languishes in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpath jail. Despite the ‘moratorium’ on executions in force since 2008, Zulfikar wakes each day not knowing what his ultimate fate will be.

“Zulfiqar’s daughters were very young when he was convicted. Now they are grown-ups,”

says Hamza Haider, a lawyer working with the Justice Project Pakistan, who is pursuing Zulfiqar’s case.

He says Zulfikar, a former Navy employee, has done 38 different certifications in various subjects during his prolonged jail term and is has been dubbed ‘Dr Zulfikar’ by jail staff and inmates alike. Besides this, he has also taught numerous prisoners throughout his term.

“But everyone is not as mentally tough as Zulfikar, who is apparently an exceptional case. Another case that the Justice Project Pakistan is pursuing is of a prisoner on the death row at Kot Lakhpat Jail for the last 10 years. Every time I meet him, I find out that he is moving fast towards a mental collapse and his condition is deteriorating day by day,” says Haider, adding that he would like the prisoner to remain anonymous as even seeing his name published in a newspaper may trigger further psychological issues.

The rights activist adds that most of the prisoners on death row, who gradually develop ‘death row phenomenon’ or ‘death row syndrome’, are mostly so worn out mentally and physically that they don’t even understand the situation they are really in. This uncertainty is compounded thanks to the 2008 moratorium. The condemned prisoners are locked in separate cells, away from the general barracks which, in itself is a mental torture, as these ‘black cells’ are a reminder of imminent death, Haider says.

There is little awareness of mental health issues and psychological illness in Pakistan in general, and jail authorities are, as one would expect, indifferent to such issues. Haider laments that prison rules are silent over whether a prisoner can call a psychologist or psychiatrist from the outside.

“When we file an application, demanding permission for a psychologist’s meeting with our client, our plea is mostly rejected. Instead, the jail’s own medical officer or a doctor from a public hospital checks the prisoner very briefly and rules out any psychological issues,” Haider says.

It’s not only the condemned prisoners who go through the mental torture and psychological issues, their families also suffer as they have to face the societal stigma of a family member being convicted.

Hamza Haider says that death sentence should be abolished in a country like Pakistan as its justice system is full of flaws and everybody related to the system manipulates these flaws.

 Photo by AFP
Photo by AFP

Punjab IG Prisons Mian Farooq Nazeer says there are about 6,000 condemned prisoners in Punjab and the appeals of 60pc of these prisoners are pending with high courts, while the cases of 30pc of them are going on in the Supreme Court while there are 400 to 500 prisoners whose appeals have been rejected by the president.

“Such prisoners do develop psychological issues but most of them are not related to jails as they can’t remain detached from the society and the problems that their families face once they are incarcerated,”

he claims.

Mr Nazeer adds that to deal with the psychological issues, the prisons department relies on religious therapy and prisoners as a result become more regular in their prayers and in reading religious scriptures. They thus become more religious as compared to people in the rest of the society.

“Besides, they are kept in constant contact with their families through visits, especially on special occasions like Eid, etc. Above all, there was a vacant post of clinical psychologist for jails and that has been filled now. The clinical psychologist has been assigned the job to examine prisoners and treat them in ways that medical doctors cannot do,” the IG Prisons says. He also claims that laws to safeguard the rights of for all kinds of prisoners do exist but are rarely implemented.

“In my opinion, a life sentence is harsher punishment as compared to a death sentence. The countries which have abolished death sentence, like Turkey, have replaced it with life imprisonment (jailed till death) which is more severe form of torture,”

he says. “However, if we want to truly abolish the death sentence, we have to do it step by step and create social conditions which may stop heinous crimes like murders,” he adds.

According to a recent report of the Amnesty International, there are over 8,500 prisoners on death row in Pakistan, one of the largest death-row population in the world, and the number is increasing by every passing day as the government has halted the process of executions.

The siege within

Keeping hardened militants in jail is a dangerous proposition for all involved

By Waseem Ahmed Shah

An eerie silence envelopes the dark Sher Shah Suri Road leading to Peshawar Central Prison as night descends on the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The road, one of the city’s main arteries, bustling with activity and flow of traffic during the daytime, wears a deserted look with armed personnel of local police deputed at different points. An APC (armed personnel carrier) and some police patrol vehicles are normally parked outside the colonial era prison, which has been fortified by placing sandbags and barbed wires around the boundary walls.

Since last year’s Dera Ismail Khan jailbreak, it is now a routine practice to block the routes leading to the prison within a radius of around a kilometre and stop all vehicular movement during the night. Keeping the prison secure is believed to be an uphill task given the precarious security situation in Peshawar as several of the localities in the outskirt turn into no-go areas after sunset.

Apart from deputing personnel of police and Frontier Constabulary, IjawansI of the Pakistan Army also conduct regular patrolling in the area as the Corps Commander House is located close by. In January this year, army personnel assumed control of the Peshawar Prison after receiving intelligence regarding the activities of certain militants imprisoned there. Some time back, a day-long search operation was conducted inside the prison, though the security sources claimed that it was a sort of rehearsal and exercise about how they would respond in case of any attack on the prison.

Similar security arrangements are in place for the province’s three other central prisons at Bannu, D.I. Khan and Haripur. The security of the prisons housing militants and other suspects charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) has now turned into a nightmare for the authorities after the two high profile jailbreaks at Bannu and D.I. Khan in April 2012 and July 2013, respectively.

 Visitors queue up outside Peshawar Central Prison
Visitors queue up outside Peshawar Central Prison

Keeping hardened militants in jail is a dangerous proposition for all involved

To avoid another such incident the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa home, prison and police departments are now taking “threat alerts” from the intelligence agencies and Crisis Management Cell seriously.

“The existing jails are old and not meant for hardened militants. We do not have any high security prison of international standards, but now high security zones in six of the existing prisons are under construction,”

said the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Inspector General of Prisons, Kifayatullah Khan.

The IG said that as all the major prisons were under threat, they had placed a three-layer security arrangement there and were also closely coordinating with the army so as to seek their assistance in case of any militant onslaught on any of the prisons.

Militants arrested in various cases have presently been lodged in different prisons. In Peshawar, around 35 suspects belonging to different outfits, such as Lashkar-i-Islam (LI), Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Shariah-i-Mohammadi (TNSM), Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), etc. are imprisoned.

If intelligence information regarding a threat to a particular prison is received, the authorities have to shift suspects charged under the Anti Terrorism Act to different prisons. An official informed us that some time back several prisoners convicted for acts of terrorism were shifted to the D.I. Khan prison where security had been beefed up. Similarly, around 15 prisoners were reportedly shifted from Bannu Jail after the Bannu Division’s regional police officer (RPO) sent a letter to the provincial government informing about an expected attack on that prison.

If intelligence information regarding a threat to a particular prison is received, the authorities have to shift suspects charged under the Anti Terrorism Act to different prisons

In the past, suspected militants were kept in various barracks, due to which they could exercise their influence in most parts of the prison. One such prisoner was a TTP commander Nadeem Abbas, who was known for dictating his terms to the administration. In August 2011, in a well-engineered plan, he, along with another militant Zakeem Shah, escaped after their companions attacked a police party which had taken them to a hospital; three cops were killed in the incident. Last year an anti-terrorism court awarded life imprisonment to a prison doctor and a police official for abetting in that crime.

To stop the arrested militants from exercising their influence on other prisoners, the authorities have segregated them from the rest of the prisoners and they are now kept in the same enclosure.

The use of cell phones by prisoners, especially militants, inside the prison has always been a matter of concern. The officials have frequently been recovering cell phones and mobile SIMs during search operations. In June last year, the authorities recovered 60 cell phones and dozens of SIMs from different prisons.

“Such search operations proves ineffective as some of the prisoners, especially those arrested in connection with militancy, are influential, and they easily manage to get a mobile phone with the connivance of some black sheep among the prisons employees within a few days,”

said Noor Alam Khan, an advocate of the Supreme Court.

Following the Bannu jailbreak, cell phone jammers were installed in different prisons, but the performance of these jammers was not up to the mark. Frequent power outages also rendered these electronic gadgets non-functional.

The IG prison informed that after cancelling the contract with the present company they are now fulfilling legal requirements for the installation of new jammers which could effectively stop cell phone communication. Apart from that Mr Kifayatullah said that they had also been planning to procure cell phone tracing devices as presently they had been conducting a manual search for it. The provincial government has also allocated funds for procurement of other gadgets including walk-through gates, metal detectors, CCTV cameras and x-ray scanning machines.

About suspected militants inside the prisons, a prison official who does not want to be named said that they had to remain soft towards them due to threats to their families. He recalled that about three years ago miscreants had hurled hand grenades at the residence of one of their officers as he was strict towards the militants.

Bursting at the seams

No place for felons in society and no space for them inside the prisons

By Shazia Hasan

Waiting at the police station to lodge an FIR about a burglary at home one gets to witness the goings on there. A cell phone thief with a toy pistol is brought in and slapped around before being taken away. A drug addict bothering people outside a restaurant is also dragged in. More incoming traffic includes a pickpocket, a bus driver, a beggar … one by one all are taken away to the lockup, a triangular room with no windows, light or fan. The men stand huddled together near the iron barred door to be able to breathe some fresh air from the open air verandah in the centre of the police station. “They are all criminals, they deserve no better,” says the SHO of the police station when questioned about the conditions the men will have to face until someone comes to take responsibility for them or till they are moved to a proper prison or jail.

Graves or prison cells?

But in prison, too, they won’t be any better off. Pakistani jails, unless they happen to be women or juvenile prisons, are bursting at the seams. The population in our prisons is almost five times more than the capacity with the prisoners in the barracks in the evenings at closing time not even being able to turn if they lie alongside each other in the tight space. So most just sit or squat on the floor until they can be let out in the morning to carry out their chores. This goes against prison rule no 745, which states that each inmate must get at least 18 square metres in a barrack and 31 square metres in a cell, if placed there.

According to a two-year-old research carried out by the International Centre of Prison Studies (ICPS), Pakistan had 97 prisons and the combined prisoner population in them was 75,568.

Of course, all the prisoners don’t have to be huddled together in their cells. According to Prison’s Act (1894) prisoners are classified according to the nature of their crimes, sex, age and health. For instance, political convicts, terrorists and common criminals are kept separate and categorised as ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ class prisoners. Things such as whether the offender is a first-time offender or a habitual one, is his offense serious or not and his financial status and education are also taken into consideration during classification.

However, this procedure isn’t always carried out. When the Legal Aid Office (LAO), a committee formed for the welfare of prisoners, carried out a survey in the prisons, recently, they found under-trial prisoners (UTPs), convicted prisoners, a few juvenile and hardened prisoners all mixed up.

 Women and juvenile jails are relatively less over-crowded
Women and juvenile jails are relatively less over-crowded

“Of the 17 prisons visited, seven had detained UTPs and convicted prisoners in the same barracks, five of the prisons had not segregated juvenile prisoners from the adult prisoners, 12 prisons in Sindh had not segregated hardened/repeat offenders from UTPs and four prisons had not segregated civil prisoners from persons imprisoned for a criminal offense. Fifteen UTPs were not segregated from prisoners suffering from infectious diseases, too,” read the survey report.

Women and juvenile prisons

Women prisons are a different story altogether as they are under-populated. This is because the law is generally more lenient towards women and children. After doing six months in prison here, the women, according to an amendment in the criminal laws shall be released on bail.

Meanwhile, Youthful Offenders Industrial Schools (YOIS) may not be overpopulated but still they are most often just a barrack built near the adult prisoners’ barracks leaving them vulnerable to bullying and even sexual abuse.

Spreading of illnesses

Overcrowding in prisons leads to other serious problems such as hygiene, sanitation and the spreading of contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, Hepatitis C, HIV and skin infections. As most part of the budget is spent in buying medicines for the inmates and other medicare needs, the budget for jails falls short.

With the budget falling short, the diet, too, is affected. Instead of getting the prescribed balanced diet including vegetables, lentils, meat, eggs and milk, the prisoners are fed lentils mostly.

Also, there are long queues outside the toilets and very little privacy due to the overcrowding.

Court appearances

Another issue, due to having too many prisoners to manage, is lack of transport and escorts to take the UTPs to the courts for appearances during their individual trials. Not appearing in court leads to delays in trials of prisoners whose cases could be disposed off swiftly. One often comes across one or two policemen chaperoning eight to 10 UTPs shackled together in the courts, especially the city courts. All are taken together to one court even though some may have their hearings at other courts at the same time. That’s how the cases drag on and they languish behind bars

A failed experiment

The Badin open jail, an idea conceived in 1958 for some 500 prisoners, was to have no walls, locks, bars or gates on 2,800 acres of farmland. It was a place to allow sufficient space to the ‘good behaviour’ prisoners who had served one-third of their sentences there to prove to the authorities that they were capable of resisting temptations of running away and hence could be trusted. It was more a passage to their being led back into society as they could develop various job-related skills such as farming, bee-keeping, fishery, poultry, gardening, etc., there under a stress-free environment. There was also an option of calling over family members of the prisoners to allow them to spend time with them to make up for the lost time between them while they were in jail. After Badin, open jails were to be set up in Thatta, Haripur, Multan, Jhang and Faisalabad but the pilot project itself failed.

The reasons given for its failure included lack of funds as calling prisoners’ families over meant providing privacy for them and building separate huts on the land. But another reason was the unwillingness of jail superintendents to let the good-behaviour prisoners go. They said it was a high-risk proposition to let the prisoners live freely like this under minimum guard but people suspect they didn’t want to let go of them as they needed them as domestic servants in their own houses, a practice that apparently was widespread at the time.

When the jailbirds sing

Behind the bars is not a very different world from what they left outside — four jailbirds share their prison stories

By Ahmed Yusuf

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.

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

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.

 Karachi Jail. - File Photo
Karachi Jail. - File Photo

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

Reimagining incarceration

By Madeeha Syed

Walking into the Karachi Central Jail one doesn’t feel like it conforms to the stereotypical image of what a jail is ‘supposed’ to look. Instead of plain white walls and bars, there are manicured lawns, murals painted on the walls, art studios, music rooms, a large mosque, a salon in the women’s section, cells that resemble dormitories, inmates participating in recreational activities and a large open-air kitchen that served food that tastes better than that sold at most popular dhabas.

The purpose of the visit was to speak to Nusrat Manghan, the Inspector General Prisons (IGP) Sindh.

Under your governance, the prisons in Sindh have seen an introduction of the arts into the curriculum. There is a studio where inmates paint, while others teach, their work is often exhibited and sold as well. What led you to do this?

Manghan: I believe that if we keep jails ‘closed’, the reform and rehabilitation process of criminals will stop right there. Fine art is one medium through which a person can do his/her catharsis. He takes everything that is bothering his heart and mind to the canvas and unburdens himself. It’s a powerful medium.

The Karachi Central Jail also recently launched its own magazine, The Prison Review, earlier this year. We’ve organised poetry recitals as well, in both Sindhi and Urdu. We’re in the process of holding a drama for which rehearsals are currently underway and we’re also holding music lessons.

  Prisoners preparing for exams
Prisoners preparing for exams

“This is a ‘soft’ medium that mentally stimulate a person and sensitises their minds. If a hard-core criminal, who has known only how to pick up a Kalashnikov or a TT pistol begins to work with a brush and canvas, then obviously the way he thinks will eventually change.”

A report published by the Legal Aid Office states that in 2011, ‘An Islamic instructor managed to brainwash an entire population into becoming violent extremists within a span of a year. When prison authorities gained knowledge of this, they terminated Islamic instructor from his duties which created a short revolt from the prisoners.’ How could such a person pass through the checks and balances of the prison authorities and gain access to the inmates?

Manghan: “I have an issue with that report. A teacher can’t simply come in and convert the entire jail. This sounds dramatic and it wasn’t the case. Yes, if someone wants to come in and exert his own influence and if he has access he can, but only to a certain extent. We’ve always taken immediate action against any such person who has been reported to us.

“We are aware of everything that is happening. When a class is in session, it’s not as if it’s only students who are attending. There are our people present as well and they give us feedback on what was taught. All charitable organisations and religious teachers that work inside the prison have been properly vetted. Some have even been banned.”

Are there any de-radicalisation programmes to help rehabilitate hardened militants that are incarcerated? Also, one of the major concerns regarding some of the programmes is that if you teach hardened criminals or militants computer and other skills, you are essentially equipping them with tools they can use for their criminal activities once released.

Manghan: “We haven’t introduced any such programme for hardened criminals because of security reasons. For that we need a proper, isolated place where full security arrangements can be made. We don’t have that. We don’t want to give them a loose end, that in attempting to ‘reform’, a security lapse may take place.”

One of the key issues faced in prisons all over the world is the movement of drugs and cell phones in and out of prison. How difficult is it to deal with that here?

 Inmates, all Fine Arts students at District Prison Malir, sit in a semicircle to sketch still lifes at the inauguration of the Sadequain School of Fine Arts, Computer Lab and English Language Centre. - Photo by White Star
Inmates, all Fine Arts students at District Prison Malir, sit in a semicircle to sketch still lifes at the inauguration of the Sadequain School of Fine Arts, Computer Lab and English Language Centre. - Photo by White Star

Manghan: “Thank God that now in Karachi Central Prison we’ve installed jammers.

“Inmates mostly smuggled drugs during trips to the court for their hearings. They make a capsule out of the drugs and swallow them. Once inside the prison, they vomit them out or defecate them.”

He showed a bag full of drugs that had been confiscated from inmates returning to prison. The drugs had been taped into tablet-shaped, eraser-sized capsules. Some had light bloodstains on them.

“A long time ago, a prisoner died this way. The capsule ruptured inside him, he was rushed to Civil Hospital and he was operated on. Other capsules were recovered from inside his body, but by then the drug had spread throughout his body and he died.

“It’s impossible to completely eliminate drugs from entering the prison. Their job is to bring them; our job is to catch them. It’s an on-going process. The rate of confiscation is high but obviously it’s not 100pc. That’s not humanly possible.”

According to a report by the Legal Aid Office, ‘… a major riot took place in Hyderabad’s Central Jail in March 2011 resulting in death and injury to prisoners and prison staff. Inmates involved, who later appeared before a judicial commission, mentioned that drugs were sold to prisoners with the support of the prison authorities and prisoners claimed that cannabis was cultivated inside the prison.’

Manghan: “This story is three or four years old. Back then a lot of prisons in Sindh were running without any proper system. Gradually prison management put them in order and thankfully now, there is no situation in any jail where riots would take place.

“The main reason behind riots is mismanagement. If it happens then that means that some kind of fault/responsibility lies with the management. If we keep everything properly managed, there would be no trouble.”

In 2012 the Sindh chief of a faction of the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi headed by Naeem Bukhari had been caught. Hafiz Qasim Rasheed alias Ganja, who is also a high-profile target-killing suspect with over 100 murders to his credit was arrested and a hand grenade, Kalashnikov, pistol and a hit-list were recovered from his possession. The list contained names of police officers he had allegedly murdered because they created problems for his family when they came to visit him in jail during his incarceration. Do incidents like these happen often?

Manghan: “We have lost many of our people this way. This happens everywhere. Prison officials, guards are always under threat — by the mafia, gangs, terrorists — especially by those who belong to habitual and professional gangs. The pressure on the staff regarding this is always there.”

 Art work by inmates
Art work by inmates

In a talk held several months ago, IG Prisons Sindh, Nusrat Manghan had talked about the location of Karachi Central Jail presenting a security problem not only to the jail, but to the people of the densely populated area around it. When the jail was constructed it was in the outskirts of the city and now, it is smack in the middle of it. What is the alternative? Can they move the prison elsewhere?

Manghan: “Following Punjab, several high-security prisons are being constructed in Sindh. The feasibility report has already been made and work is being done at a very fast pace. Inshallah, within a year or two we’ll have a separate high-security prison and high-risk prisoners will be shifted there.”

The Bannu jailbreak that took place in 2012 in which heavily-armed militants stormed the prison and managed to free 400 inmates was very well-coordinated attack. Do you think the Karachi Central Jail is prepared to deal with such an event?

Manghan: “Thank God we’re prepared to deal with any eventuality. Yes. We have that level of preparedness.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 7th, 2014