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March 22, 2020

Prisoners and the pandemic

Opinion

March 22, 2020

The disease caused by the coronavirus is here in Pakistan. We need to think of the most vulnerable in our society. One group of people that needs our special attention are prisoners. In addition, there is also the need to think why the Sindh government’s response to the outbreak of the disease is being perceived to be more effective and pro-active than the federal government or other provincial governments.

First, the prisoners. The total capacity of prisons in Pakistan is to accommodate 57,742 prisoners, while there are 73,661 prisoners held, according to the government jails reform commission report. This jails reform commission report was submitted on the intervention of pro-citizens’ rights Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minullah. We know that social distancing and self-isolation is critical to save lives and spread of the coronavirus. How can the jail authorities deal with it if the virus spreads in Pakistan’s over-crowded jails?

According to a detailed Dawn report, a jails reforms committee has been set up by the government and it consists of Farogh Naseem and Barrister Ali Zafar. This committee and the minister of human rights should strongly urge the government to at least release all under-trial prisoners who constitute the majority (61 percent) of the jail population.

We have seen time and again how justice is denied and many innocent languish in jails as under-trial prisoners without ever being convicted. They might be released after some years, having wasted precious years of their lives under incarceration. Imagine if they also get a contagious and potentially life-threatening disease while being locked up as under-trial prisoners!

According to the government’s jail reforms report presented to the Islamabad High Court in January 2020, there are a total of 73,661 prisoners in Pakistan’s jails and out of them 44,853 are under-trial prisoners (61 percent). In Punjab, there are 45,324 total prisoners and out of them 25,054 (55 percent) are under-trial. In Sindh, there are 16,315 total prisoners and 11,488 (70 percent) of them are under-trial. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the figures are total 9,900 and under-trials 7,067 (71 percent) and in Balochistan, total 2,122 and under-trials 1,244 (59 percent). In addition, there are many thousands in internment centres in KP and Balochistan who also face the imminent danger of the coronavirus and must be released.

Although, the respective high courts have issued directives to stop the spread of the coronavirus amongst the prisoners, we know that even general population often lacks proper healthcare and medical facilities. Medical coverage in jails would be awfully inadequate considering that nearly 50 percent of designated medical staff posts are vacant in the prisons of the country. We know that an underlying medical condition worsens the prognosis of those afflicted by disease as a result of the coronavirus. According to the government report on jail reforms, 1,823 prisoners suffer from hepatitis, 425 are HIV positive, 173 have tuberculosis, 594 have mental illness and 2,192 suffer from other ailments. Just imagine if they get Covid-19 in addition to all other ailments?

If the virus spreads in jails, it will engulf the rest of society like a wild fire. The prisoners would be sent to medical facilities that would already be lacking capacity to deal with such an outbreak. No point wasting time and dilly-dallying on it.

The government should release all under-trail prisoners and also commute the sentences of those prisoners involved in non-heinous crimes. Releasing 60-80 percent of prisoners (mostly under-trial) would free up the space in our over-crowded prisoners and would help jail authorities segregate the leftover prisoners to help them practise some form of social distancing. The government, the higher judiciary and the jail authorities should consult each other and act now by releasing the prisoners immediately. The time to act is now.

Another issue regarding the governmental response against the pandemic is that the Sindh government has taken pro-active and effective measures to fight the virus while the federal government and other provincial government’s performance is being considered lackluster.

There is a reason behind the pro-active performance of Sindh government. Democratic governments rely on voters’ goodwill to remain in power and they have to focus on service-delivery to the people. We saw Punjab’s ex-chief minister Shahbaz Sharif taking the dengue virus fight seriously and being able to control it largely with effective provincial response in the past.

Democratic leaders win elections and rule through patron-client relationships. However, in changing Pakistan, only patron-client relationships are not enough to win a re-election. A democratic government also needs to deliver and, most of all, deliver on the services that people need. The Sindh government is not perceived to be the leading light on service delivery compared to the past government in Punjab but it has taken the threat from the coronavirus epidemic very seriously.

Compared to Sindh, the PTI government, in addition to its popular base, also relies on the support of other institutional forces. The Sindh provincial government knows that it will depend on the goodwill of voters to get it re-elected and if it mucks up in the handling of the epidemic and if it leads to loss of lives, it might not get re-elected. This service-delivery oriented urgency explains the differential performance of the Sindh provincial government compared to the federal and some other provincial governments. Hope the PTI government picks up speed soon.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist.

Email: [email protected]