WHERE prisoners at Adiala jail in Rawalpindi are concerned, there may be a silver lining to having former prime minister Nawaz Sharif among them, even if he is housed in separate, secure barracks. For that has prompted his brother, Shahbaz Sharif to raise objections to the living conditions in the prison — located in the same province of which he himself until recently had long been chief minister. Even though the former chief minister’s disquiet was on account of the erstwhile premier’s discomfort behind bars rather than any realisation of the general prison population’s plight, they too may stand to benefit. In a letter to the caretaker prime minister and caretaker Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif mentioned the lack of health and medical facilities, humidity, lack of air conditioning, unhygienic food, and poor sanitation in the jail. Taking notice of the allegations, the chairman of the National Commission for Human Rights has directed a two-member NCHR team to visit Adiala prison in the coming week.
The NCHR statement rightly describes the squalid conditions as a blatant violation of prisoners’ human rights. Moreover, Adiala jail is not an exception, but more of a rule. Among the findings of a report released a few months ago, prisons in Pakistan house 57pc more prisoners than the official capacity — the eight most crowded among them have an occupancy rate 300pc to 500pc higher. Aside from stripping individuals of their dignity — a basic right of even the most violent, disruptive convict — living in such a confined space has serious health consequences, including the spread of disease and a heightened risk of mental illness. Intolerably close physical proximity also increases the possibility of tensions between prisoners boiling over into serious confrontations. Moreover, many detention facilities are housed in old, colonial-era buildings where sanitation and hygiene pose significant challenges. Yet no government in recent years has seen fit to express any serious interest in improving conditions that currently affect 78,000 plus people — including juvenile prisoners and inmates’ children — who are behind bars. According to an NCHR member quoted in the Dawn report, the committee has in the past made a number of recommendations to this end, but to no avail. With the pressure for accountability growing louder with each successive government, perhaps politicians should make more of an effort towards prison reforms. After all, conditions in jail may one day affect them in the most direct way possible.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2018