Thursday August 11, 2022

Behind bars

By Editorial Board
November 29, 2021

The Secretariat of the Federal Ombudsman has reported that currently over 88,000 prisoners are held in Pakistan’s 116 jails against the capacity of just over 65,000. This overcrowding means the prisoners live in the most terrible conditions with, in many cases, 8 to 10 cramped into a cell meant for at the maximum four people. The situation on death row is the same with many prisoners placed in cells meant for a single individual. There are also over 1300 women and 1400 juveniles in these jails spread across the country. The Juvenile Justice System Ordinance of 2000 had ruled that juveniles would not be held with adult, hardened criminals. Clearly, this is not being followed. The problem of overcrowding in jails has also continued decade after decade without any remedy being found.

While the federal ombudsman has repeated the previous suggestions that a better system of parole and release earlier than the appointed time be worked out to relieve the load on prisons and also jail staff who must manage the prisoners in the most trying conditions, there is no evidence that they have achieved this over the years. The reports given in by the provinces speak of more prisons being set up to try and ease the overcrowding and the ombudsman has ordered a biometric system be put in place so that prisoners can be identified and this system regulated. The ombudsman was also told that mentally disturbed prisoners were no longer being held with other inmates. An impartial inquiry is required to establish if this is true. Independent organisations working for the rights of prisoners have previously said that individuals with serious mental conditions have been incarcerated when in fact they needed mental healthcare.

We also need to work towards a reasonable solution. This would mean a quicker period of trial, since most of those held in jails are under-trial prisoners who have not been found guilty of any offence. This would also mean a system of community restraints of various kinds, including the cuffing system, now used in many countries which prevents a prisoner from moving away from within a determined area and other similar measures, with a focus on reforming prisoners, and teaching them new skills, so that they can use these to earn a livelihood. Certainly, the current situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. Even beyond humanity, there are many reasons to ease the situation in jails. The overcrowding presents an immense security risk and has led to jail riots at various prisons over the years. We need to take the situation seriously and understand that simply locking people up behind bars, in some cases for decades, before a final verdict is reached in their trials, does more harm than good.