Dispatches from detention: What is it like to be imprisoned during a pandemic?

The following letters are narrated by inmates who have recently spent time in prison amid an outbreak of the novel Coronavirus.
Published August 10, 2020

August 10 is commemorated as International Prisoners' Justice Day in remembrance of Edward Nalon who took his own life in a Canadian prison on this day in 1974 after being a victim of solitary confinement and neglect.

The following letters are narrated by inmates who have recently spent time in prison amid an outbreak of the novel Coronavirus. Their words provide a brief glimpse into how it feels to be imprisoned during a pandemic. The names of the prisoners have been withheld to protect their identities.

By Anonymous, 39 years old

Arrested at the age of 17, I was in prison on death row for over two decades. I was released last month as my death sentence was overturned. Living in prison is already difficult, but the pandemic made it impossible. Shops are open; offices and banks are open, but prisons are closed. It doesn’t make sense. We couldn’t do anything — there was no progress in our cases, since they were frozen in the courts.

We couldn't meet our friends or our family. It was cruel. It would have been bearable if we could have at least spoken to our loved ones. We had PCOs in the jail that we used to call our family members from and hear their voices. But during the pandemic, we couldn’t even use them.

Imagine not being able to speak to your family when it feels like the world is falling apart. Not knowing if they are infected, if they are alive. Now that I've been released, I'm happy to be with my loved ones but I worry about the people that I have left behind in prison.

By Anonymous, 20 years old

I was falsely accused of stealing and was held at different police stations before being transferred to jail. No one at any police station told me about the coronavirus or about social distancing. Even if they had told me, it wouldn't have made much of a difference. At night, we were around 30 people in a 12x14 foot cell. There wasn't even enough space for all of us to lie down. Some of us had to sit all night.

I was tortured at the police stations. They hit my feet with sticks until they blistered and then made me stand on them all night long. They pricked me all over my skin with needles and I bled. I felt helpless as I couldn't do anything to protect myself. I just had to do what they told me. I was lonely and afraid. I didn't know when I would see my family again.

When we went to see the doctors, they asked us if we had travelled and other such questions. The policeman answered for us and we didn't get the chance to speak at all. Before we could enter the prison, the doctors checked our temperatures to see if we were sick.

At Kot Lakhpat, they gave us clean clothes, soap and detergent to wash ourselves and our old clothes. But the entire time I was at the prison, we didn't undergo any medical check-ups nor were informed of any guidelines about the coronavirus and related safety measures.

By Anonymous, 18 years old

I was imprisoned in District Jail Lahore for about a month and a half, on false charges of robbery.

When we arrived, the jail staff told us about the pandemic but I noticed that they seemed more frightened than us. This was the first prison in Pakistan to be infected. I spent a few days in a hospital ward before joining the general prison. Two of my relatives were already in the jail. They looked after me and it was easier for me to adjust to the life inside. In this way, I was lucky.

The only thing I thought about was my family and what they were thinking about me. I worried for them as they worried for me. Due to the virus, visitations weren't allowed. I didn't see my family the whole time I was imprisoned.

Two days before Eidul Fitr, I was released by the Assistant Superintendent Jail when he visited the prison. I'm glad I was released in time to be with my family for Eid.

The letters have been transcribed and edited for clarity by Maria S Kazmi at Justice Project Pakistan.