Missing prison reform

Published December 29, 2021

THE Islamabad High Court’s comments that the country’s prisons have turned into “epicentres of crime, corruption and corrupt practices” are hardly surprising. While hearing a case about the maltreatment of prisoners in jails on Monday, the IHC chief justice remarked that “elite capture” also seemed to prevail in prisons as those with power exploited the system, aided by the prison authorities, while the basic rights of vulnerable prisoners were continuously being infringed upon. This description of Pakistan’s prisons could serve as an indictment of the country’s overall criminal justice system. The dismal conditions in prisons, where criminality persists, stems from structural problems of the criminal justice system itself. The overcrowding of prisons, not investing in the salaries and training of prison staff and a lack of resources have all contributed to prisons’ inability to fulfil their role as venues of reformative justice. Though a number of reforms have been carried out in the area of prosecution and policing, successive governments have failed to accord priority to prisons and their staff. Lack of capacity of the prison staff combined with a situation where their transfers and promotions are often compromised on account of political interference, creates conditions ripe for exploitation by criminal elements. For instance, as demonstrated by the petition before the IHC, a prisoner, Irfan Iqbal revealed the nexus between a land-grabbing gang and the prison authorities. There are other examples too, like Omar Saeed Sheikh, who, from his cell in Hyderabad, allegedly made hoax calls to key leaders in India and Pakistan in an attempt to ratchet up tensions between the two countries.

The authorities should ensure full accountability of prison officials who allow reformatory premises to be turned into dens of crime. As a starting point, they can note their domestic and international commitments and work towards reforming a faulty criminal justice system that has neither curbed lawbreaking behaviour nor emphasised the rehabilitation of prisoners. If matters are left as they are, once released, prisoners will return to a life of crime.

Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2021

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