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November 17, 2019

Packed into jail


November 17, 2019

A petition moved before the federal ombudsman by a counsel has raised attention to the plight of overcrowded jails across the prison and the situation of inmates incarcerated in them. The petition points out that, while the total jail capacity is 57,742 prisoners, 77,275 are held in overcrowded premises. While Punjab and Sindh hold the largest numbers of prisoners, each of the provinces houses inmates well beyond its capacities. There are also 1,204 women in these prisons. The situation of the jails makes it extremely difficult for the prisoners, so many of whom are in fact under trial and have not been convicted. There is, technically speaking at least, no reason at all to hold them. Some have remained behind bars for year after year without their trial reaching a conclusion. The painfully slow process of our judicial system and lackadaisical inquiry are the key reasons behind this. The problem is one that has persisted for decades and has remained unresolved.

One of the key questions that underpins it is the matter of whether prisons are intended to reform or simply detain prisoners in miserable conditions for long periods of time. The overcrowded jails also mean it is practically impossible for jail administrations to carry out their duties or meet the needs of prisoners as listed in the Jail Manual. There is a further question behind this. With even death cells, meant to hold one or two persons, in fact accommodating up to eight prisoners because the rate of execution cannot match the rate at which prisoners are sentenced to death, key issues arise. In order to make detention a useful exercise, it is essential that inmates be held in a condition which can turn them into useful citizens or at least citizens who are willing to avoid breaking the law. To achieve this, they need education, vocational training, opportunities for intellectual and social growth and in some cases at least expert counseling.

When juveniles are held alongside adult prisoners who may be hardened criminals, it makes the situation especially troublesome as these young men and in a far smaller number of cases young women are far less likely to overcome whatever problems led them to usually minor crimes in the first place. The provision in the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance of 2000 that juveniles be held separately has never been enforced. There is therefore a lot to think about. The petitioner raises important questions and these must be considered by the authorities so that meaningful change is possible.

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