Prison reform

January 23, 2019

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ON Monday, the Sindh cabinet approved the draft Sindh Prisons and Correction Act, 2019, to replace the outdated Prison Act of 1894. Unlike the latter, which was considered retributive or punitive in nature, the proposed law is reformative, keeping prisoners’ safety and rights in mind, while working to rehabilitate them so they can return to society as law-abiding citizens. This is a welcome move by the provincial government. In the words of a lawyer working for prisoner rights, the criminal justice system in Pakistan has for too long been “rife with corruption, mired in red tape and beholden to power”. Outdated laws along with no oversight from the home department and the lack of computerised record-keeping have ensured justice is not delivered. Opportunities for reform are overlooked by both state and society due to stigma and apathy towards these societal ‘rejects’. It doesn’t have to be this way. Many of history’s great figures have spent part of their lives in prison: the time and space they received to read and reflect would evolve their vision. Additionally, there has been little effort in putting in place alternatives for minor crimes, such as fines, community service, and mental health treatment.

In Pakistan, the overwhelming majority of the prison population is either anticipating or in the midst of a trial. Perhaps the previous chief justice should have focused his attention here. Due to extended detentions without trial, the prisons are filled beyond their capacity. In May 2018, there were a total of 83,718 prisoners languishing in various overcrowded, underfunded and poorly managed jails across Pakistan — 51,535 prisoners in Punjab alone. The capacity of the Karachi Central Jail is 2,400, but the inmate population last year stood at 4,846. Just as prison legislation was overlooked for over a century, so too were the conditions in jails, with their outdated architecture, often lacking basic amenities or access to health facilities and balanced diets.

Prisons are resultantly brimming with disease and illness, both physical and psychological. Inmates face difficulties receiving visits from friends and family. In these overcrowded spaces — evidently a challenge to manage — hardened criminals and terrorists are lumped together with juvenile delinquents, first-time offenders and petty criminals. Research suggests that jails are breeding grounds for militancy and crime. Poor accountability systems and nepotism in the hiring and transfer of superintendents results in incompetency and the unchecked abuse of power on the job: torture, ill treatment and discrimination are widespread. The new prison law includes many humane provisions such as a minimum of one visit for one hour each month, education, vocational training, health facilities and social and psychological services, prisoners oversight committee visits, inspections, testing of food and inquiries into complaints. A few years ago, IG Prisons Sindh had also started a literacy programme and art therapy in Karachi Central Jail. Such initiatives will modernise an anachronistic prison system.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2019