Unjust jail reform

10 Aug 2020

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ON this day in 1974, Edward Nalon took his own life at a prison in Ontario, Canada, after being jostled between segregation units and solitary confinement for a year, following a simple request to be housed in a non-working general unit. The following year inmates at Millhaven Maximum Security Prison staged a strike to recall his death, refusing to eat or work for 24 hours. The year after, another inmate, Robert Landers, died of a heart attack in solitary confinement.

Nurses and guards ignored Landers’ calls for help; the panic buttons in his cell did not work, and he bled to death. This incident sparked a 110-day strike, and along with a series of prisoner rights movements across Canada that decade, brought about the abolishment of corporal punishment and earned prisoners constitutional rights.

Though rather obscure globally, every year prisoners in Canadian correctional facilities, with the support of their families, community members, and activists observe a 24-hour peaceful protest to oppose and raise public awareness about prison violence.

While there is no indication that the International Prisoners Justice Day is commemorated in Pakistan inside or out of jails, it is important to highlight its relevance. Provincial prison rules reforms are in progress, with Punjab’s currently underway, and KP and Sindh’s completed in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Prior to this, none of the sporadic reforms since the country’s formation have seen adequate implementation.

Are prisons meant to be sites of punishment or reform?

The dire need for prison reforms drew attention again when the Islamabad High Court indicated overcrowding was inhumane, while the Supreme Court ruled against the release of health-compromised and remand detainees in the wake of the coronavirus. Forever-pending undertrial cases, unsanitary conditions, and overcapacity facilities were once again cited as blights on the shambles of this halfway point along the criminal justice system.

Prison rules reforms attempt to regulate the powers of prison officials, and clear ambiguities in colonial-era language allow for inhumane treatment of inmates.

It might be difficult for some to understand that prisoners have not foregone all their rights, having not only violated the law, but also society’s fundamental contract in which the freedom of individuals is balanced by freedom for all. Thus a debate ensues: what are prisons supposed to be — sites of punishment or sites of reform? Shouldn’t those who have violated the rights of others suffer consequences in order to regain the right to participate in society?

Such questions hark back to the colonial history of prison reform: with the late 18th century shift towards modern law and order, ‘native’ forms of corporal punishment were deemed ‘barbaric’. This saw the introduction of long-term, hard menial labour conceptualised as a ‘civilised’ form of retributive justice. Deviants would repay their dues by following repetitive rules, and be disciplined into productive societal belonging.

A central argument in English-language academic work on criminal justice in Pakistan is that such colonial-era reforms were not properly implemented, and despite their inheritance in 1947, prison administrations remain historically ‘backward’. In addition to enacting new provincial jail manuals, a recently introduced federal programme focuses on other areas of reform.

The first report of the Prime Minister’s Prisoners Aid Committee (2019) notably includes “implementing a prison industry plan”, among other forms of modernisation such as the digitisation of manual record keeping. It aims to “generate revenue not only for the State … but also help the prisoners utilise their time in learning various skills which will make them good citizens”. This is not a new idea: anthropologist David Arnold traces the creation of prison workshops for producing goods for government departments and police in British India to the 1850s.

The document cites India’s Tihar Jail’s “economic rehabilitation programmes” as bringing in “10-15 crores rupees annually through public-private partnerships”. Due to its successful PR image, Tihar is used as model for reform, but the reality is it continues to house prisoners in overcrowded conditions where they experience routine violence.

This narrative of socioeconomic tech-enabled progress belies the realities of the country’s inhumane criminal justice system.

One prisoner spent over 15 years on death row, arrested in his early 20s on murder charges. Maintaining his innocence, he recalled 14 days of torture in police custody, including being hung by his wrists to his cell door. Another ex-prisoner with a former life sentence, when asked if he received medical care, laughed his lungs out: “Are you talking about Pakistan or some other country? Here we don’t have such facilities for common persons and you are asking about prisoners.”

The writer is a researcher currently working for Justice Project Pakistan.

Twitter: @radhapshah

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2020