Muhammad Ali is in a local lockup in Sahiwal | File Photos
Muhammad Ali is in a local lockup in Sahiwal | File Photos

In the daily tidal wave of trivial and sometimes vital information that engulfs us every day, the subject of juvenile justice also has to compete with a host of other children’s issues.

This includes the abiding shame of an estimated 20 million out-of-school children as well as the few thousands whose parents and communities prevent polio vaccination. The re-opening of schools on March 1, 2021, marks the much-needed resumption of regular education for tens of millions of kids already enrolled, but forced to stay home for the past 11 months because of Covid-19. The recent legislation in the centre and in the provinces that prohibits corporal punishment, forced religious conversion and premature marriages are positive indicators. But do children in jails receive enough attention?

In one sense, child prisoners are part of a paradox — that all human beings are born prisoners: prisoners of their respective DNAs from parents and ancestors, partly shared with siblings and extended family, born into particular religions, sects, beliefs, practices, mother-tongues, income groups, locations, and cultures. A child simply has to accept these predefined characteristics of basic identity that shape early life. It is only later that a human being becomes capable of transcending some pre-set markers of identity while knowing that certain physical attributes, such as DNA, skin colour, eye colour and physiology will never change, except in terms of growth and eventual ageing.

When a child unfortunately becomes involved in criminal activity — often the result of conditions over which the child has no control — the consequences take the child from the prison of birth to a prison where formative growth occurs before reaching 18 years of age. And because the first few years of life crucially shape attitudes and behaviour in adulthood, a juvenile offender, even when released from jail, remains a prisoner for life.

Pakistan has 1,300 juvenile offenders in jails. Ninety percent of them are simply awaiting trial. Is the state and society doing enough for them?

But actual imprisonment in childhood can be even more oppressive than the birth-prison, because the second prison can aggravate patterns and tendencies which the child has inherited.

Perhaps one reason why the plight of children in jails does not receive the mass and the media attention it deserves is sheer numbers. Of about a total of 85,000 jail inmates in the country, there are only about 1,300 under the age of 18 years. Yet detained juveniles are more than the sum of their parts. The figure of 1,300 is a micro-dot compared to the figure of 20 million out-of-school children. But in the context of each juvenile’s untapped potential and repressed reservoir of undiscovered talent, the 1,300 represent at least a multiple of thousands more.

The worst aspect of the 1,300 is that about 90 percent of them are under-trial prisoners residing with the 10 percent convicted. One of the more ignominious aspects of our judicial and legal system is the prolonged detention of under-trials. Most of their crimes are relatively minor, such as attempted theft or being forced accomplices of criminal adults, etc.

At least 12 dangers and disadvantages, singly or together, confront and affect every child in prison — with the 20 percent girl-children prisoners being even more liable to be victimised, though there is little difference in the pain suffered on the basis of gender.

A young boy in juvenile prison at Landhi Jail in Karachi
A young boy in juvenile prison at Landhi Jail in Karachi

The “dirty dozen” comprise the following: 1. Daily physical contact of under-trial juveniles with convicted ones, which facilitates the transfer of non-physical yet damaging modes of attitudes and behaviour; 2. Emotional agony of uncertainty of outcome and the unpredictable date for conclusion of trial; 3. However considerate and kind some individual jail staff members may be, the overall deficit in the capacity of jail staff to attend to the special needs of children and respect the nuances of their individual personalities; 4. Vulnerability to addictive habits through access to drugs and narcotics smuggled into jails by corrupt staff for adult prisoners next door; 5. Exposure to possible sexual child abuse or simply ugly violence; 6. Loss of priceless time of normal schooling and education; 7. Lack of regular, specialist psychological counselling; 8. The physical hardship and ill-health suffered because of poor infrastructure and hygiene e.g. in toilets; 9. Malnutrition, making the child more prone to stunting, a permanently afflictive condition estimated to affect millions of children living outside jails as well; 10. The fears about the social stigma that awaits them post-release; 11. Despite facilities and schedules that allow private time, the absence of the joys and thrills of play, of games and sports partaken in and freely celebrated; and 12. Perhaps the most potentially lethal aspect: vulnerability to indoctrination and brain-washing into violent extremism, with religion often used to promote religiosity and intolerance, a condition that could then crystallise and worsen soon after release.

To be fair to our hugely under-resourced, vastly over-crowded system of jails and staff, there are often instances of individuals and institutions in which children do not have to suffer the impact of the entire “dirty dozen”. There are places where sincere attempts are made to alleviate the difficult conditions faced by juvenile offenders, and people within the system who care. Fortunately, there are also several citizens in civil society including lawyers, former justices and judges who, in their separate ways, but also sometimes coordinating their efforts, provide carefully prepared programmes and projects that aim to rehabilitate and re-integrate juvenile and youth offenders. These efforts also start with attempts to redress the disparities of prison conditions.

It is commendable, however, that multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations Development Programme and Unicef as well as indigenous Pakistani philanthropists, enterprises and individuals extend funding and professional support to relieve the torment of children in prisons.

One such example is the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Children (SPARC) which has taken a special interest in addressing the fundamental issues faced by children and young adults in jails, while working in close cooperation with prison authorities and police. Founded by a remarkably committed individual, Senior Advo­cate Anis Jillani, in Islamabad in 1992 and also ably supported by his spouse Zarina Jillani, over the past 29 years, SPARC has enlisted the participation of a range of citizens serving in a voluntary capacity at the Board level and in chapters across the country. SAHEE is another NGO that focuses on providing psycho-social support through the services of a psychiatrist and professional psychologist. The Committee for the Welfare of Prisoners in Karachi, founded by Justice (r) Nasir Aslam Zahid and very competently led by Barrister Ayla Emaan Zahid, engages the helpful expertise of lawyers.

While efforts to improve physical infrastructure continue by using a combination of official funding and private donations, ongoing SPARC projects in Karachi and Peshawar include training modules for the capacity development of prison staff to re-integrate and rehabilitate freed prisoners, and workshops for young prisoners and under-trials to inculcate respect for diversity in order to prevent violent extremism and sectarianism.

These objectives are also sought through the inclusion of relevant material in training manuals for each participant, along with vocational training for future livelihood. Another vital feature is partnership with local associations of trade and industry, and of professional specialists, to encourage them to help those who complete their jail terms and want to build a new life. Feedback from both prison staff and independent evaluation indicates positive changes in the attitudes and behaviour of many juvenile offenders and youth after their participation in such programmes.

Yet, the needs of children in prisons are enormous. Both from society and state in Pakistan, and from friendly overseas countries and multilateral agencies, support in voluntary time and funds has to substantially increase to meet current and projected requirements.

Even as we hope that positive trends persist, it is necessary to remember that for most of these 1,300 young human beings — each with individual potential and dreams — life still remains their second prison. It is incumbent on all of us to liberate them.

The writer is an author, former senator and federal minister. He can be reached at www.javedjabbar.net

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 14th, 2021

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