PAKISTAN’S prisons are packed beyond capacity. The exact scale of this nationwide crisis was recently presented in a report to the Supreme Court by the federal ombudsperson’s office. According to the findings, there are a total of 77,275 prisoners held in 114 prisons across the country. Appallingly, these prisons only have a combined capacity to house 57,742 people. The vast majority — 47,077 — of these prisoners are languishing in the 42 jails of Punjab, against a total sanctioned strength of 32,477. This is followed by Sindh, which houses 17,239 inmates in 24 prisons, against its capacity to accommodate only 13,038 inmates. There are many negative consequences that are directly linked to the problem of overcapacity, and which affect both the psychological and physical health of the prisoners. Some researchers suggest that such suffocating conditions also impact the prisoners’ conduct towards one another, pointing to a higher rate of assault in spaces with limited movement and space to breathe and think. Such learned antisocial behaviour can continue even after prisoners are released back into ‘healthy’ society. This state of affairs is especially alarming when we consider that minors, first-time offenders and petty thieves sometimes share the space with hardened criminals and terrorists in Pakistani prisons. Others have pointed to high blood pressure rates among inmates due to the stress caused to their mental and physical state by their living conditions. Additionally, there is a burden on resources, and prisoners suffer from malnutrition due to poor diets and a lack of medical attention. They can contract a variety of diseases, which can then be passed on to those in close proximity.
Overcrowding in prisons is a long-standing issue, written about countless times before, yet it does not seem to get the political attention it deserves, as both state and society seem to forget or are apathetic to the fact that prisoners have rights too. Then there is the lesser-talked-about fact that the vast majority of Pakistani prisoners are still under trial or waiting for their trials to begin. A sluggish trial process is one of the major reasons prisons are teeming beyond capacity. While it is necessary for the government to create more prisons, detention facilities and juvenile centres, and simultaneously increase the capacity of existing ones, until the problem of judicial lethargy is not addressed, we may never see significant progress on the ground.
Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2019