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Prison reforms

September 04, 2016


THE prison performs an especially unique function in our society — sequestering the unwanted, the undesirable, and the unwelcome. In this regard, it offers a remarkably convenient solution to a most unsightly problem — crime. Its very expedience is in its ability to systematically hide criminals from the public sphere. Its subjects are isolated, labelled and then relegated to their individual cells, behind barbed fences and tall impregnable concrete walls — out of our sight, and consequently, out of mind.

What a fascinating exercise in collective moral hygiene.

Yet, as convenient as this function may appear, it is equally dangerous. The invisibility that it accords to a prisoner does not come without a price. Placed behind iron bars, cast into the dark underbelly of the state, the prisoner becomes a nameless, faceless object and this subtraction of his identity, this slow dismantling of his humanness, gradually results in his erasure from mainstream society. It is no wonder then, that our prisons have garnered such infamy. After all, who pities the anonymous?

The present state of our jails is appalling. Two years ago, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan published a report titled State of Human Rights in 2014, illuminating in considerable detail the deplorable conditions that have come to characterise our prisons.

We must reconfigure our idea of justice.

The fundamental issue that it highlighted can qualify as nothing less than a blatant administrative failure — overcrowding. According to the report, there were 97 operational prisons in Pakistan in 2014, with a cumulative authorised capacity of 45,210 prisoners. In actuality, they housed an excess of 71,567 inmates. Today, that number has surpassed 80,000, without any corresponding increase in capacity.

Such gross overpopulation inadvertently leads to a dramatic decrease in the quality of prison life. Human rights watchdogs routinely complain of cramped cells, of insanitary and unhygienic conditions, of prisoners suffering from malnutrition and mental illnesses, of an utter lack of access to basic healthcare and of the flagrant abuse of authority by prison staff — issues that are exacerbated as overcrowding puts further strain on already underfunded coffers.

Another alarming issue is that two-thirds of the total prison population comprises under-trial prisoners, who have not been convicted of a crime and are thus still innocent. Yet, given the sluggish pace of our criminal justice system, they often end up trapped in the rusted clogs of our legal machinery, at times for years on end.

Admittedly, in exceptional circumstances, there is little alternative to remanding suspects in custody for the duration of their trial, but is it fair to treat presumably innocent defendants in the same manner as convicts? Is this not equivalent to punishment itself? And if so, is this not a patent miscarriage of justice?

It is unsurprising that, despite all this being common knowledge, prison reform is rarely entertained as an issue of note. After all, it offers no glitz or glamour, no tributes of gallantry, no political currency. But absolution from this duty should not be encouraged any longer.

Our prisons are in desperate need of attention and, frankly put, the reformation required might be less challenging than imagined. Initially, and this is the simplest task, what is required is the construction of new prisons, particularly in Punjab and Sindh, where overcrowding is most severe.

In the long haul, however, our criminal justice system must begin exercising some creativity and imagination. Presently, a judge has two options if a defendant is convicted — incarceration or the imposition of a fine. Where a fine is inappropriate, locking up defendant becomes the only option, even in petty or minor offences. This model of sentencing is unsustainable. We need alternatives to imprisonment: probation, community service and restitution etc. Not only will they ease the pressure on our prisons, they would also be far more effective at rehabilitating convicts and reducing recidivism.

Further, decency requires that prisoners be provided with a certain standard of a dignified life: a clean environment, adequate nutrition, and access to healthcare. This is not merely a moral duty, it is a constitutional imperative, a fundamental right. For this right to be realised, however, we must reconfigure our idea of justice, and move away from a traditional, punitive philosophy to one that is restorative and rehabilitative. The object of the prison should not be to punish, humiliate and dehumanise an individual, but to reform them and allow them to come back into society’s fold.

Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, once claimed that, “the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If that is the case, then perhaps it is time for us to take a step back and question our own civility.

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn September 4th, 2016