ISLAMABAD: A damning report issued by Human Rights Watch on Pakistani prisons has spotlighted severe overcrowding in jails, which has compounded existing health deficiencies in prisons.

The overcrowding makes inmates vulnerable to communicable diseases and leaves them without access to medicine and treatment for even basic health needs, according to the HRW report.

The report, titled “A Nightmare for Everyone”, highlighted hum­an rights abuses, such as torture, class divide, insanitary living conditions, lack of legal aid, discrimination against women, and poor quality of food in jails.

According to the report, more than 88,650 inmates are languishing in 116 prisons having an approved capacity of 65,168.

“The number of designated posts for medical officers for all prisons in Pakistan is 193, but as of 2020, 105 of these posts were vacant,” the report revealed.

The watchdog cited a number of instances where under-trial prisoners passed away after jail authorities failed to provide basic healthcare. Even in serious cases, jail officials frequently deny requests for medical treatment outside the prison, fearing such “visits [could be used] as an excuse to request bail on medical grounds”.

The HRW report added that proper healthcare facilities and the presence of medical officers were necessary because a large number of prisoners are over the age of 60.

According to the report, the jail superintendent “acts as a viceroy” and the medical officer responsible for the well-being and hygiene of inmates is without any authority.

“I am legally responsible for ensuring that the prison has supplies for medicines and also that precautions are taken to prevent overcrowding. However, in practice, even a Panadol tablet [pain reliever] has to be signed off by the superintendent,” the report quoted a health officer from Punjab as saying.

Prisoners with mental health conditions are “particularly at risk of abuse”, the rights watchdog said. It cited at least three studies that showed mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety, were common among prisoners.

“Under section 466 of the Criminal Procedure Code, detainees may be kept in a psychiatric hospital for involuntary treatment until the institution signs off on their recovery. Such forcible treatment is a violation of fundamental human rights,” according to the HRW report.

Insanitary conditions

The report said Pakistani prisons are notorious for their insanitary conditions. “Lice, fleas, scabies, and skin diseases are common in prisons, and prisoners described infestation of rats and lizards in their cells,” the report said.

Poor hygiene is responsible for tuberculosis which “spreads 29 per cent faster in jails” compared to the general population.

The rights watchdog also focused on overcrowding in jails, saying that on an average a cell meant for three inmates was being used to house six to 15 people, mostly under-trial and pre-trial detainees.

It said detainees are denied bail by courts as a “matter of practice” even though most offences, including serious ones, are bailable.

Discrimination against women

The report quoted lawyers and activists as saying that women prisoners “are especially vulnerable to being abused by male prison guards, including sexual assault, rape, and being pressured to engage in sex in exchange for food or favours”.

Women are exposed to a higher risk of infections due to a lack of access to sanitary napkins, soap, and clean water. Three former prisoners told HRW that sanitary pads were not “routinely provided”.

Recommendations

HRW has asked the government to reform bail laws, appoint more healthcare professionals, reform prison rules in line with international practices, establish an independent and transparent mechanism, and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment for unannounced visits.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2023

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