The fortified walls of the sprawling Adiala Jail — famed for housing some of Pakistan's most notorious convicts — has a particularly menacing air today.

As I walk into the main building, I think of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer's killer Mumtaz Qadri and thousands of inmates languishing within the prison’s murky confines. Some of these hardened criminals are in line to be hanged given the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty.

Members of the paramilitary force stoically patrol the boundary wall, sections of the main building and its outposts. This extra layer of security, which wasn’t there during my last visit to the jail, is unsettling. The boundary wall of the jail, which was six feet high earlier, has now been raised to 10 feet.

6,000 inside

Like all jails in Pakistan, Adiala struggles with the problem of intense overcrowding.

Before partition, in 1932, there was a dire need to accommodate the increasing number of criminals from Rawalpindi and its adjoining areas into the jail. In 1984, the jail was shifted to a newly constructed building in Adiala village after which it was named Central Jail Adiala Rawalpindi.

Originally constructed to hold 1,900 prisoners, it now houses over 6,000 inmates — more than three times that its designated space can cater to. But overcrowding is just one of many issues within these walls.

A lot has changed over the last few months at the Adiala Jail and my visit is greeted with surprise and security checks. A few months ago, the jail was relatively easy for journalists to access. Sipping a hot cup of tea adjacent to the police barracks in front of Gate No. 2 was a customary thing to do. No one gave you reprimanding looks if you pulled out your phone to take pictures.

But, that has all changed now.

When I try to park my car on the jail’s outskirts, the policeman on duty is startled to see a visitor and signals me to move on. I park a little further away from the jail’s boundary wall and proceed to the famous ‘dhaba’ whose specialty is doodh patti (brewed milk tea).

Fortunately, the hotel owner knows me well. I was among the countless journalists who thronged the jail during the hearings of the Benazir Bhutto murder case and the 2008 Mumbai attacks case.

I ask the dhaba owner Bashir* (name changed to protect privacy) about the jail’s beefed-up security. With a dark look on his face, he tells me that security had been greatly heightened in the past six months. “Army vehicles patrol the facility all the time,” he says.

Upon the request of jail authorities, the district administration has suspended mobile phone services within a five-kilometre radius of the prison and till the nearby village of Gorakhpur. Every other day, settlements in the adjoining areas are searched for suspects.

One of the most sensitive prisons in the country, Adiala Jail is to Pakistan what Tihar Jail is to India. Both are infamous, and despite hosting high-profile prisoners, security breaches have been witnessed in both. Where Mumtaz Qadri incited the shooting of an inmate in Adiala, Tihar saw the alleged suicide of the mastermind of the 2012 Delhi bus gang-rape case.

Foreign convicts, mostly charged with drug-trafficking offences, constitute the largest group of prisoners in Adiala, followed by murder convicts.

“There was a time when majority of the convicts in Adiala were arrested because of their links to extremist organisations, but that’s not the case anymore. Terror convicts have been transferred to different jails across Pakistan,” says Bashir.

He introduces me to Faiz Muhammad at the dhaba, who served four years in Adiala in a murder case. He was released on bail just 15 days before I visited because the evidence against him was declared insufficient.

Faiz hails from Gujjar Khan on the outskirts of Rawalpindi, and came to Adiala to visit his brothers who have been imprisoned in the same murder case. I sense an opportunity and pounce on it. No one could tell us about the jail better than one who had been inside it.

Also read: Adiala jail houses 14 high profile terrorists

A day in Adiala

At first, Faiz is reluctant to share any information but opens up after some coaxing from Bashir.

Every day, 80 to 85 new prisoners are brought to the jail, while more or less the same number of inmates are released daily, he says.

“At 5pm every day, prisoners are made to line up in front of the ‘chief checker’ following which newcomers and those eligible for release are inspected. This checking takes place in a circular building at the centre of the jail with a constable in-charge who has a record of all the inmates.”

He says the constable is assisted by “number-dar” inmates, who were earlier selected for their good behaviour inside the prison but are now randomly chosen.

There is a big gender divide; out of the 6,000 inmates, about 400 are women, with some of them being held in murder cases. There are over 100 women whose children live with them. Some of them hail from Bangladesh, Britain and parts of Africa.

I’m surprised to learn that female inmates are treated no differently than their male counterparts; the only difference, Faiz says, is that they are supervised by female guards.

There are eight blocks in the jail, which are divided into different barracks. Within these, there are two main divisions. One of these is the “qusoori chakki” where the ruckus-causing inmates are kept. The person appointed to oversee the "qusoori chakki" is usually an inmate with a sturdy build; he is often called in to punish those prisoners who have broken rules or caused trouble.

The other is “hifazati chakki”, which houses the general prison population, with provision for protective cells for those inmates who might have enemies inside the jail premises.

There is a separate chamber for death row convicts who languish in the cells till they are executed. There are 400 such prisoners in Adiala Jail, who are either sentenced to death, have appeals in courts, or have had their appeals rejected.

Unlike two years ago when only a few barracks were blessed with ceiling fans, almost every cell is now equipped with fans and toilets.

Faiz says some barracks also boast of television sets, which are for the entertainment of the affluent and well-connected prisoners. Most of the privileged inmates do not find it terribly uncomfortable inside. They enjoy perks like an air-conditioner, a telephone and servants among other facilities. In certain instances, influential prisoners can even get themselves a transfer to Civil Hospital on the prescription of the jail’s medical officer.

Indigent defendants sometimes end up spending more time in jail because they are unable to arrange funds for their release, while the wealthy ones are able to secure a release sooner. This, however, varies from case to case and conviction to conviction. Nonetheless, it is reflective of the two-tier nature of the Pakistani criminal justice system in which the rich and famous enjoy privileges in confinement whereas the poor are resigned to abysmal jail conditions.

Also read: Rimsha released from Adiala Jail, flown to unknown location

Former president Asif Ali Zardari, who served a seven-year prison sentence, largely remained in the VIP ward of the PIMS Hospital.

Hunger, disease, death

The dismal conditions inside prisons across the country have been highlighted time and again and they have been termed breeding grounds for radicalisation and terrorist activity in the absence of any rehabilitation programmes.

The deplorable state of prisoners inside the jail came under public eye in 2007 when the issue of overcrowding was first raised, with many inmates left to languish for years awaiting trial in cramped, dimly lit and poorly ventilated cells. There they faced hunger, disease and sometimes even death.

Currently, there is a hospital and a furniture factory inside the prison along with an electronics workshop. For female inmates, there is a vocational training centre where they are taught sewing and other crafts and skills. The inmates are paid for their work, but the remuneration is meagre.

The under-trial prisoners are tasked to work in the jail’s gardens. There is an auditorium inside the jail as well, which is opened on only certain occasions, such as Eid.

'The meat reeks of diesel'

Faiz’s monologue sets the tone for what is the very last leg of our conversation. I’m not surprised to learn of the sub-standard food served inside jails. While the jail manual states that prisoners should be served meat, rice and dessert every once in a while, inmates are in fact provided food of inferior quality due to faulty contracts, he says.

“The meat reeks of diesel rather than cooking oil. Drinking water is supplied through bore wells which makes the inmates susceptible to numerous diseases.”

My mind is still abuzz with questions but Faiz’s turn to meet his brother has come.

Before departing, he tells us that he had to wait only an hour for his turn since he had bribed a constable, otherwise the wait could have taken the entire day.

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