LAST month, the Islamabad High Court constituted a commission to look into human rights abuses within prisons, particularly with regard to inmates’ health issues. The commission has now published its findings in a report, and the situation seems to be even worse than previously thought, though perhaps it is not too much of a surprise to those who have been advocating for prisoners’ rights for some time now. According to its investigation, the commission found that over 5,000 out of a total of 73,661 prisoners suffered from some form of disease: 2,100 inmates suffered from physical ailments, while nearly 2,400 were infected with contagious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis. Additionally, it found a host of mental illnesses festering within prison confines and around 600 prisoners were said to be suffering from psychological disorders. Equally worrying, nearly half of the medical jail staff seats remained empty, along with a shortage of appropriate medical equipment and laboratories.
Under the Prison Rules and the Code of Criminal Procedure, prisoners are entitled to compulsory medical examination; release upon old age or illness; and transfer to hospitals in case of serious illness. All these health issues and discrepancies are linked to one overarching malaise in the criminal justice system: overcrowded prison conditions, which are the result of over-incarceration caused largely by delays in trial. In other words, prisons are packed beyond their capacities. Last year, a report to the Supreme Court found that there were a total of 77,275 prisoners held in 114 prisons across the country, which only had the capacity to house 57,742 people. In Punjab, 47,077 prisoners languished in 42 jails with the capacity to hold 32,477 people. And in Sindh, 17,239 prisoners were crammed into 24 prisons, against a sanctioned capacity of 13,038 people. The more recent statistics provided in the report vary somewhat, but once again underscore the problem of overcrowding, while confirming that the majority of prisoners are undertrials and often forced to share space with serious offenders. In Punjab, 55pc of all prisoners are undertrials; in Balochistan, this figure rises slightly to 59pc; and in Sindh and KP, a massive 70pc and 71pc of all prisoners have yet to be declared guilty. The government must start creating more prisons, detention and juvenile centres, but the law-enforcement and judicial systems have to consider their part in the problem as well and attempt to correct their failings.
Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2020