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January 18, 2021

Life behind bars begs for dignity

National

January 18, 2021

In a third world country like Pakistan, jails are worse than the armpit – they are dingy, grotty, squalid, overcrowded and poorly managed. One gets goosebumps and breaks into a sweat the moment the unpleasant thought of being in jail flashes across one’s mind.

Jails are the most dreaded and despised places on the earth. Sitting aloof from the hustle and bustle of the cities, they seem to be some other planet where the hardened criminals and wrongdoers are sent to serve their terms.

High walls round the jail periphery – supported by nonlethal electric fencing and sharp wall spikes running atop – promise no escape the moment an accused/convict boarding the prison van dismounts behind the giant doors. It is an entirely different world governed by stringent rules and regulations executed by the corrupt, unforgiving and merciless jail staff.

The first embarrassment inmates are exposed to soon after landing in the jail is that they are thoroughly frisked and whatever comes out goes straight into the pockets of the warders. The next embarrassment is that a resourceless inmate has to use fouls-smelling, unclean and unhygienic bedding and the jail staff rides roughshod over him/her compared with a resourceful person who gets a comfortable bedding and the jail staff is compliant, obedient and subservient to them.

Here one observes practical implementation of the time-tested proverb “Money makes the mare go”. The rules and regulations relax, bend and evaporate in thin air if the accused or convict is politically/financially strong and resourceful. In the jail parlance, such people are called ‘Tauries’ who flaunt their power and pelf and lord it over the jail staff by regularly greasing their palms.

This privileged group, often of hardened criminals and rogues, has their own fiefdoms on the jail premises with lots of ‘khidmatgars’. They have unhindered physical access to almost every corner of the jail and get wholesome food and best medical care. In order to widen their circle of supporters, this resourceful group of prisoners protects their band and arranges ‘langars’ off and on [provision of free food] for the inmates.

In sharp contrast, for a poor inmate, there is not even a modicum of mercy, relief, respect and compassion. Such inmates are intentionally and willfully abused, demeaned, degraded, derided and made to clean stinking washrooms, pick and dispose of garbage and do scores of other jobs, which

are every inch beneath human dignity. There are restrictions on their freedom of movement and the kind of food they get is so unwholesome and unhealthy that it would even turn an animal’s stomach.

Another serious dilemma is that owing to the outdated laws and procedures and loose governmental oversight, our jails have become a breeding ground for hardened criminals.

There are proper measures in place to keep the juvenile or first-time offenders away from hardened criminals. Since evil communication corrupts good manners, these juveniles after release join different groups of criminals and sooner or later land back in jail rather than transforming into useful citizens. This serious problem is a slap in the face of our weak prison system.

Yet another serious problem is the detention of inmates without remand or trial for years leading to the overcrowding of jails. It has been observed that many inmates serving their terms cannot get out because they have no money to engage arrange their release to reunite with their families.

It has also been observed that the inmates serving long terms become emotionally unstable [nervous wrecks] and there are no arrangements on the jail premises for their psychosocial support to help them normalize mentally and emotionally.

The above-mentioned facts point a finger at our political leadership that has over the years willfully backburnered this serious issue. Owing to their neglect

and nonchalance, citizens continue to be deprived of their rights protected by the law and the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Recommendations:

· Out federal and provincial governments ought to make stringent laws to ensure cent percent protection of all rights of prisoners.

· The hardened culture of posting/transfers and promotions pampered by a deep-seeded culture of nepotism and political interference must be done away with immediately.

· There should be a strong, unforgiving system of accountability to put end to the brutal treatment of inmates by the jail administration.

· There is an acute shortage of probation and parole officers and no systematic programs to rehabilitate released prisoners.

· The capacity building of prison staff must be enhanced by arranging their training abroad to inculcate in them a sense of love and respect for humanity.

· The federal and provincial governments should put in place an effective probation regime; creating alternatives to imprisonment for petty crimes, such as fines, community service, community confinement and mental health and drug treatment; and providing free legal aid to those who cannot afford it.

· There should be penitentiaries in different parts of the country for reformation of criminals to make them law-abiding and useful citizens.

· Police and prisons staff must face disciplinary proceedings and their service period should be attached for often failing to produce inmates in the court on their trial dates.

· Healthy sporting activities should be arranged on the jail premises on a daily basis under the watchful eyes of jail warders on the pattern of American and western jails which contributes hugely towards letting off the pent-up emotions and frustration, making them calm and cool.

Since being in jail leaves a devastating impact on the mental health of inmates, the federal and provincial governments should engage the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) to address the psychosocial, psychological and psychiatric problems of inmates.

The writer is a concerned citizen