Tuesday February 27, 2024

Nightmare in prison

By Editorial Board
March 31, 2023

There is little empathy accorded to anyone behind bars; after all, they’re incarcerated so they must deserve whatever comes their way – or so the thinking goes. This is probably why the prison reforms that have been on the cards for so long in Pakistan have hardly ever been taken seriously by successive governments. The recently published Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, ‘A Nightmare for Everyone – The Health Crisis in Pakistan’s Prisons’ – is an indictment of the prison system in the country, highlighting the plight of prisoners who have been living in inhumane conditions with absolutely nowhere to go to resolve their problems. The sustained lack of empathy for prisoners has brought the country to a point where almost all prisons are overcrowded with worse healthcare conditions. A small cell that can hold three people max holds up to 15 people.

The country’s 116 jails with a holding capacity of 65,168 hold 88,650 inmates. Not only does this overcrowding lead to insanitary conditions, it is also a major cause for the spread of fatal diseases like tuberculosis. Investigations by HRW reveal that jail superintendents often act as viceroys and deliberately delay approvals for medical treatment. There have been quite a few instances where under-trial inmates died after they were denied medical aid. Another shocking yet completely believable fact highlighted by the report is the shortage of medical staff across prisons. Out of the 193 designated posts, over 50 per cent of these posts (105) are vacant. Prisoners rarely get the chance to get themselves medically examined by a specialist. In most cases, they are given over-the-counter painkillers, which provide temporary relief. The underlying medical conditions remain undiagnosed.

Most prisoners are poor and lack the financial means to fight their cases and get out of prison. Trials take years and prisoners suffer in silence. Those incarcerated for minor offences also lose a major chunk of their lives because the system keeps betraying them. Relatively well-off incarcerated people get slightly better treatment as they offer some financial reward to officers and get most things done. The report also finds that women prisoners are more vulnerable to being abused by prison security guards. Most of them get ostracized by their families, leaving them with no family support. They face problems when it comes to their health and are rarely allowed access to healthcare facilities.

Overcrowding in prisons – as suggested in the report – can be tackled through reforming the bail laws. Pakistan’s prison authorities need to increase the number of medical professionals in jails to provide healthcare services to prisoners. Inmates should not be treated as people who cannot turn their lives around. Jails should work as rehabilitation centres for people involved in petty crimes or first-time offenders. It is also important for our society to learn to give vulnerable people a second chance. We seem to do that often enough for those with the privilege to buy their second chances at ease.