Wednesday August 17, 2022

Lahore Camp Jail prisoners seek rights and better living conditions

June 06, 2021

ISLAMABAD: Prisoners incarcerated in the Camp Jail Lahore have appealed in an open letter to Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar to ensure the provision of the “very few rights guaranteed to prisoners under the outdated British prison manual”.

The prisoners contend in the letter that under-trial prisoners are not the same as convicts as “their trials are pending, (and) in the eyes of the law they are innocent until proven guilty”. They point out that Pakistan has ratified international conventions and the United Nations standards, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, that mandate in Rule 5 that “the prison regime should seek to minimize any differences between prison life and life at liberty that tend to lessen the responsibility of the prisoners or the respect due to their dignity as human beings”.

Thus, by law, their living conditions “ought to be close to their life outside jail as they are not under punishment.” However, in reality, they suffer the same harsh conditions as convicts, the prisoners lament.

The letter is divided into four parts: enabling laws, changes that can be made immediately through a simple directive, reforms related to jail, and reforms related to the transport of prisoners.

The letter states that with a single directive, the Punjab Home Department can improve the living condition of under-trial prisoners by taking the following seven steps: allowing home food immediately for all under-trial prisoners who wish to avail this facility instead of forcing them to move the courts to gain this right; allowing five basic items such as a pillow, mattress, chair, table and a TV in accordance with Section 31 of the Prisons Act which gives the right to a prisoner “to maintain himself and to keep necessaries”; revising the time allowed at a public call office from 20 minutes per week to 300 minutes per month in line with what is allowed to prisoners in the USA; doing away with the PTV-only restriction and allowing cable TV connections so that "prisoners do not remain uninformed”. The letter suggests that private cable TV operators should be allowed against a monthly fee in the same manner as monthly newspaper and TV fees are already being collected from prisoners. The prisoners claim that this step will greatly reduce depression and anxiety among prisoners and will lead to a sharp reduction in negative incidents in jail; allowing an air cooler in the summers to survive the heat; enforcing an immediate ban on all kinds of physical beatings by jail staff; preventing inhumane conditions in the prisoners’ punishment block.

The letter also identifies further areas that can be easily reformed, such as:

i) Home food and basic necessities to be allowed to all prisoners (under- trial and convicts).

(ii) Meeting with family members be allowed twice a week (instead of once) and no restriction on the number of times prisoners are allowed to meet lawyers as this restriction “undermines access to justice guaranteed under the Constitution”.

(iii) Conjugal visits with spouses allowed for under-trial prisoners too (as Jail Manual did not foresee trials to last for years upon years) and the requirement of DC approval to be waived.

(iv) Transfer of hospital management to the nearest tertiary government hospital by notifying the jail hospital as its ward in order to help reduce abuse and maltreatment of prisoners by jail staff.

(v) Abolish red tape of requiring separate permissions from jail doctor, outside consultant, courts and Home Department for shifting prisoners to hospital and empower Jail Medical Superintendent to take on-spot decisions.

(vi) A small physical bell may be provided in each cell for prisoners to ring in case of a medical emergency as shaking a heavy metal grate loudly enough to draw attention is not practical for any ailing detainee.

(vii) Privately-operated department store or Utility Stores of Pakistan be opened inside jails to provide daily use items which prisoners may buy as and when required.

(viii) Food stalls may be allowed on contract to provide quality food upon payment by prisoners.

(ix) The jail kitchen should be given on contract to a professional organisation which has an inclination towards social good instead of being manned by prisoners. Bio technologists should be hired for dietary balance and the kitchen should be inspected by the Punjab Food Authority on a regular basis.

(x) Phone booths should be installed in each barrack instead of one central facility as this would allow prisoners to make calls at their convenience without the risk of unnecessary prisoner movement. As calls are recorded, there would be no further risk in in-barrack phones versus a central PCO.

(xi) Meetings with family should be allowed on Sundays as it is the day off for most people.

(xii) The meeting hall size should be enhanced and requirements to meet behind barriers should be removed. Modern scanners (such as x-ray, etc.) may be introduced to ensure no contraband is smuggled in, thereby allowing families to embrace physically.

(xiii) Parole should be granted to prisoners on good behavior so that overpopulation in jails is reduced. A Prison Ombudsman may be established to check unjust denial of parole.

(xiv) Instead of allowing the Jail Superintendent to give punishment which disregards the separation of the judicial and executive branch of the state, a Prison Ombudsman may be established for the purpose, in line with the practice in the United Kingdom.

(xv) Humiliating practices such as making prisoners sit/ bow when the Superintendent or Deputy Superintendent is in proximity is un-Islamic and against human dignity as enshrined in the Constitution and must be abolished.

(xvi) Institutionalised dehumanising practices such as beatings in front of senior jail staff for other prisoners to see should be immediately abolished.

(xvii) Colonial practices such as the Superintendent Jail receiving a guard of honour welcome with full revelry every day in jail must be abandoned as they are inconsistent with modern human values and create a ‘God-complex’.

(xviii) Thousands of prisoners should not be locked up in cells for endless hours during visits by dignitaries – protocol can be amended so that at the time of arrival of an important visitor a wait time of 15 minutes is required for jail to be locked up.

(xix) The duty hours of jail staff (12-hour shifts, seven days a week) are inhumane and inconsistent with labour laws. The resultant mental anguish is taken out on prisoners through cruel and unjust treatment. Staff duty loading must be re-modelled and additional staff hired if necessary.

(xx) Getting work done by under trial prisoners and civil prisoners should be immediately stopped. If they volunteer to work, they should be paid the stipulated minimum wage.

(xxi) A monthly kit comprising basic hygiene items should be provided to poor prisoners so that they can maintain their human dignity.

(xxii) Power to allow prisoners to attend funerals of immediate relatives should vest in the Jail Superintendent instead of the DC, with the Jail Ombudsman as the appellate forum. The time for such visits should be increased from 12 hours for well-behaved prisoners, keeping the Qul in view.

Lastly, the letter requests the chief minister to consider reforming prison transport in the following way:

(i) Seats to be installed in buses instead of flat benches as they do not offer any protection in case of accidents.

(ii) A ventilation system should be installed in vans as these are closed metal cages that reach supra-normal temperatures in the summer months.

(iii) Vans should not be allowed to overload to prevent prisoners from passing out.

(iv) The waiting area in courts should have ventilation and airport-style seats installed.