Sitting ducks

March 24, 2020

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The writer works for Justice Project Pakistan.
The writer works for Justice Project Pakistan.

AS we are all feeling a little caged with the social distancing and self-isolation, it is probably a good time to think of prisoners around the world who have no agency in their confinement.

Think of hundreds, or even thousands, of prisoners huddled together in cramped quarters — sitting ducks in the face of a pandemic that threatens to punch gaping holes in our social fabric as we know it.

Covid-19 has taken the world by a sickly storm. And as we slowly pick ourselves up and put ourselves together to fight this deadly outbreak, we will need both scholarship and introspection. For prisoners and their families, it will be an even more distressing battle. As already highlighted in an editorial in this paper, inmates share utensils and confined spaces, basic hygiene is often an unattainable luxury, and massive turnover — as is generally the case with prison populations — means potential carriers of the virus might be exposing prisoners when they go in and then take it outside to their communities once they are released.

Our jails are a microcosm of life outside. When healthcare, medicines, and sanitary products are hard to come by on the shelves of supermarkets, there is little hope any of it will find its way behind bars. The inmates may be low on our list of priorities, but they are some of the most vulnerable amongst us.

What can the state do to ensure the safety of nearly 70,000 inmates?

Consider the demographics of our prison population. According to the report of a commission constituted by the Islamabad High Court, over 2,000 prisoners suffer from physical ailments, and nearly 2,500 from contagious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis. Most alarmingly, 1,500 prisoners are over the age of 60. These are the most likely to contract the virus, and even die as a result of it. The state of health provisions inside prisons makes the situation even more dire. According to the report, 10 per cent of Punjab’s prisons do not have ambulances, while the available ones are not well-equipped. This is the country’s most populous province and with the greatest resources. Other parts of Pakistan do not even have access to these small mercies.

So what can the state do to ensure the safety of nearly 70,000 inmates in Pakistan’s jails? For starters, the provincial governments need to place immediate preventive measures to improve hygiene and sanitation, take steps to reduce overcrowding, open space to isolate prisoners affected by the virus, and stop charging copays for medical care in prisons. In places where inmates congregate, the jail administrations should instal hand sanitisers, generally considered contraband in prisons because they contain alcohol.

Fortunately, the wheels have been already set in motion.

The Balochistan and Sindh governments have announced that prisoners would be screened for the virus. This is a great initiative and should be carried out as soon as possible, if it has not happened already. Above all, there should be serious consideration given to suspending the sentences of prisoners above the age of 50. The Sindh government has already sought the release of elderly convicts under a new law that was passed last year: the Sindh Prisons and Correction Act 2019. The chief minister of Punjab has announced to use his special powers to grant a 60-day special remission to eligible prisoners.

Some other steps have also been taken in the way of precaution. Punjab and Balochistan have banned jail visits for three and four weeks, respectively, while the inspector general of prisons in Sindh has asked for all penitentiaries to be sterilised. Recently, the Islamabad High Court granted bail to under-trial prisoners arrested for minor crimes in the capital. And though lawyers are divided over the fairness of trials conducted via video links, there is a simple enough case for allowing prisoners to speak to their families via video link while visits are banned.

The rest of the world is taking even more drastic measures. Iran, which is one of the worst affected countries, has temporarily released 85,000 prisoners and is going to pardon another 10,000.

My colleague and prisoners’ rights activist, Sohail Yafat, who was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, spent 10 years in prison before he was finally released in 2010. He recalls an outbreak of meningitis at Sahiwal Central Jail where he was an inmate circa 2003, and the fear and helplessness he and other prisoners felt the day they saw a man lying on a patch of grass outside their barrack. They did not realise until much later that he was dead.

Sohail has now padlocked the front door of his house. He is too scared to let his wife or young children step outside. In this prison, though, he has his family by his side. He knows too many who do not have the same luxury.

The writer works for Justice Project Pakistan.

Twitter: @haiderhabib

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2020