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Monday November 29, 2021

‘South Asian jails, chambers of unending torment, not places of reform’

August 31, 2021

Islamabad:Calling prisons in South Asia the chambers of perpetual torment instead of the places of reform due to archaic laws and repressive tactics, the rights activists, lawyers and journalists from the region have pressed the governments, jail authorities, police and civil society to take measures to ease the misery of the detainees.

During a virtual discussion organised by the South Asia Peace Action Network on ‘Rights of the Incarcerated in South Asia’ on Sunday, the participants adopted a resolution on the region’s prison crisis and corrective steps.

According to the resolution read out by young Pakistani lawyer Noman Quadri, prisoners in South Asia bear the brunt of out-dated laws and heinous, coercive practices, which are mostly a legacy of colonialism. The prisons are overcrowded and have abysmal sanitation and hygiene, little privacy, substandard bedding and weak health system, so they’re chambers of perpetual torment rather than places of reform and correction.

There’s a widespread phenomenon of the accused detained for years without due legal process. Many of them, incarcerated through miscarriage of justice, are left to age and die in jail. Too many individuals suffer behind bars in cases of bailable offences and that the grant of bail has increasingly become the exception than the rule and thus, contributing to the overcrowding of prisons. Also, the on-going coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the plight of prisoners, who already had poor access to health facilities, given the confined spaces and raging virus.

Through the resolution, the participants demanded that the governments, jail authorities, police departments and civil society ensure the relief of the incarcerated through reduction of jail population, immediate release of those languishing in prison due to inability to pay fines or foe minor offences, fulfilment of all legal formalities for detentions, speedy trials, elimination of the police station ‘lock-up culture’, introduction of effective mechanisms to report excesses to prevent prisoners from sliding towards a life in crime, and provision of mental care to the inmates.

Earlier, Nepalese journalist Kanak Mani Dixit said prisoners were treated badly even if they’re detained for the ‘right reasons’. Indian lawyer Vrinda Grover complained that the state was using the machinery to incarcerate the dissenting or undesirable bodies particularly dissenting politics. “We need to link the rights and liberties we’re enjoying to what is happening in prisons,” she said. The lawyer also called for the de-congestion of jails.

Kavita Srivastava of the Indian People's Union for Civil Liberties advocated ‘open prisons’ to let inmates go out after a first roll call, work and return before the allotted second roll call. “Open prisons don’t keep people completely and instead, they require them to earn a living for their families,” she said.

Bangladeshi rights activist and painter Shahidul Alam recounted his days in jail following a student protest for safe roads in August 2018. He also highlighted the issue of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh and said 86 people of dissent were picked up by the authorities in the last year but ironically, the government continued to be in a state of denial.

Rights activist V Suresh of India said the conditions of the women's prisons in the country were terrible and the plight of the inmates was worrisome. The panellists also said the plight of fishermen picked up for maritime border violations needed special sensitivity and attention. They called for the provision of navigation means to fishermen to prevent them straying into out-of-bound territories.

Hamid Ansari of India shared his experience of detention in Pakistan, while female Indian students Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal spoke about the time they spent behind bars during the current pandemic times.

During the event, Priyanka Singh of India made a presentation on the South Asian prison numbers, including those of the incarcerated, undertrials, juveniles, cross-border inmates, prison occupancy, and enforced disappearances, and Nepalese youth activist Sarita Bartaula on the best prison practices seen by the region during the recent years. A video clip was later screened about the ordeal of a Bangladeshi national in an Indian jail.