Prison reform

Aug 21 2018


THE condition of prisons in Pakistan is appalling, although many reform committees since 1950 have made different recommendations for their improvement. Some have proposed exhaustive amendments in the law, statutes and manuals relating to prison management. Although the incarceration rate is 43 per 100,000, the prison population has increased without a proportionate increase in staff and buildings. According to the HRCP, as of November 2017, there were 82,591 prisoners against a capacity of 45,210.

Due to overcrowding, there is a chronic shortage of edible food and potable water and a severe lack of hygiene, especially in lavatories and kitchens. Hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, TB and other diseases are widespread. There is a dearth of medicines, nursing staff and ambulances, and no services for mentally challenged or ill patients. Shackles and fetters are still used and whipping administered. Torture remains the foremost instrument of disciplining prisoners.

Two-thirds of those behind bars are undertrials. There are 1.8 million cases pending for want of hearing because of shortage of judges, non-availability of vans or policemen and postponement of cases on flimsy grounds. Oppressive vagrancy laws and the prosecution of petty offences result in excessive use of lengthy pre-trial detention. Modern case management systems are missing.

There is no segregation between the convicted and undertrials, minor offenders and those with heinous crime records. Shortage of borstals means that juveniles are detained in adult prisons. Inmates are traumatised not only because of complex legal procedures and poor living conditions, but also because once incarcerated, they are forgotten by the justice system.

Two-thirds of those behind bars are undertrials.

The Institute of Criminal Policy Research reports that in 2017, the US had the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 698 prisoners per 100,000 population. The number of blacks among them was seven times higher than whites. Similarly, in Australia, the Aborigines constitute 27pc of those behind bars although they make up only 2pc of the population. In Hungary, the Roma gypsies comprise 40pc of prisoners despite a mere 6pc share in the population. In the Netherlands, non-national inmates account for 62pc of the prison populations.

This indicates the use of incarceration as a state policy based on racial and other forms of discrimination, eg researchers point to “hyperincarceration of indigenous Austra­lians, especially those with mental and cognitive disability”. The “continuing legacy of dispossession, exploitation and disempowerment of indigenous people in Australia” also mirrors the plight of the poor and marginalised communities in Pakistan, against whom false cases are instituted by powerful land grabbers and religious groups.

The efficacy of incarceration for criminal offences has long been questioned. The rationale of ‘correction’ seems illogical because conviction prevents social reintegration not only because of the stigma attached to imprisonment, but also because degrading living conditions, cohabitation with other convicts, and exposure to violence and abuse take their toll on prisoners’ mental health of prisoners, resulting in anger against society and state.

Deterrence can be achieved through means other than incarceration, such as fines, community services, restitution or unpaid work. In other cases, electronic monitoring and supervision can be more effective, as also are out-of-court settlements used by the Dutch. Norway has a recidivism rate of only 20pc as its humane prison system encourages healing of prisoners through problem-solving, counselling and raising their self-esteem.

The Nelson Mandela Rules adopted by the UN in 2015 stress that prisoners be treated with “humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”. Similarly, the concept of restorative justice adopted by the UN in 2002 is based on the principles of reconciliation and rehabilitation of offenders through workshops, counselling and vocational training.

In Pakistan, appraisal of the law and justice system is required for alternatives to custody, such as fines and community service including parole, probation, remissions and pardon for minor offences to reduce prison overcrowding. The Prisons Act 1894 and the Prison Manual of 1978 need to be amended within the international human rights framework. More parole and probation officers, upgradation and capacity building of the prison service cadre and an enhanced role of the IG prisons would help.

The recommendations of the various commissions must be implemented, including building more prisons on the pattern of the Badin Open Jail. The HRCP 2014 report revealed that the already minuscule budgets for prisons were underutilised. The National Commission for Human Rights must intervene to ensure humane treatment for prisoners so that there are better outcomes for their rehabilitation.

The writer is former federal secretary.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2018