EACH day, we learn more about the virus that is continuing to rack up lives around the world. Initially, we thought it was more stable on surfaces like plastic and stainless steel. Then the New England Journal of Medicine told us it had high aerosol stability too. Simply put, the virus lingers in the air for hours. The very air we breathe puts us at risk of contracting Covid-19. Then we found out about who the virus kills. The elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions such as high blood pressure and respiratory tract diseases are more vulnerable along with those with compromised immune systems.
From South Korea, we learnt how vulnerable those with mental illnesses and disabilities are. The country reported several deaths after outbreaks reportedly in wards of two medical facilities, one treating the mentally ill and the other disabled patients. Those with a mental illness may not be able to fully understand and implement instructions. They may not be able to maintain their own personal hygiene or even recognise and convey symptoms. We now know that if uncontrolled this virus will spread like wildfire. Countries that resisted warnings soon got a rude awakening. Eventually, they started to adopt the very measures they were ignoring. They learnt: inaction wasn’t an option.
The virus will not only infect prisoners.
Pakistan’s prisons are operating at 134 per cent of their actual capacity. Around 1,500 are above the age of 60. Juveniles, women, and the physically disabled are also among them. Around 600 prisoners are diagnosed with mental illnesses. Remember what we learnt about the virus being more deadly for some?
Rights activist Sister Helen Prejean describes prisons as a petri dish for Covid-19. The virus will not only infect prisoners. Unless we make space by releasing the most vulnerable and under-trial prisoners, nearly 30,000 people working in prisons across the country also run the risk of exposing their families to the virus. If there’s one lesson to learn here, it is that we need to slow the churn rate.
Punjab takes in nearly 500 prisoners every day. And around 62pc of Pakistan’s prison population consists of undertrials. Countries like Iran and India, which have large prison populations like us, are releasing thousands of inmates. The UK, which was one of the slowest to react, has placed correctional facilities in lockdown. Many others are releasing prisoners, asking them to serve the remainder of their sentences at home. Those not acting fast enough have to contend with riots. Nearly two dozen people have died in Colombia’s prisons after inmates protested over inadequate safeguards amid mounting frustration and anger. Italy’s prisons are facing a similar predicament.
When releasing prisoners, there are enough safeguards in place to ensure security. Pakistan is no stranger to monitoring the movements of offenders or suspects. The Fourth Schedule lists proscribed individuals suspected of terrorism or sectarianism under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Those who fail to provide the details of their whereabouts can be jailed again. Essential documents can be confiscated to prohibit travel.
This did not escape our learned judges and honourable courts. The Islamabad High Court was the first to take action. Justice Athar Minallah ordered the release of under-trial prisoners accused of petty crimes and asked prison authorities to identify the same. The Lahore High Court, too, asked prison authorities to file bail applications for the accused and convicts. After much deliberation, the provincial taskforce on Covid-19 and prisoners came up with carefully considered categories of prisoners eligible for release. Meanwhile, the Peshawar High Court ordered the release of thousands of prisoners last month while the Sindh and Balochistan governments have issued similar directives. It seemed all the provinces were poised to finally address the problem of overcrowding — a health hazard in the best of times; in a pandemic, it is a ticking time bomb.
Now that the Supreme Court has taken cognisance of the matter to examine the measures taken by the provinces, it is a unique opportunity for us to become regional leaders in the fight against Covid-19. Provincial inspectors general and governments have stayed ahead of the curve and are in a position to be quoted as an example. The Supreme Court must consider not halting that. Hopefully, it will take a comprehensive view to implement and improve these steps. Every minute lost takes us one step closer to pandemonium. We are lucky that the matter, in such a short time, has reached the apex court where the collective wisdom of learned judges will surely be a guiding force.
Inaction is not an option anymore because we know too much.
Sarah Belal is executive director of Justice Project Pakistan. Muhammad Ahmad Pansota is an advocate of the high court, practising in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2020