The condition of Pakistani prisons has historically been abysmal, largely owing to a lack of proper legislation or reforms since 1947, when the country got its freedom. Any chance visit to the jails unearths the plight of prisoners and the failures of the administration. Lack of cleanliness and hygiene prevails across Pakistani jails. Although there have been repeated reports of prisoners dying in the jails, there has never been a huge outcry. Former President Asif Ali Zardari was tortured, beaten, and humiliated in jails during the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in the 1990s.
The second major aspect behind this whole scenario is the social image of a prisoner in Pakistan. Sociologists underline that Pakistani society tends to take a jail inmate, as a less human or not a person who deserves any sympathy or rights. Society, largely, thinks that the individual gets what they deserve, and hence, does not merit any compassion.
Last year, Islamabad High Court (IHC) ordered the establishment of a commission to investigate human rights abuses in the country’s prisons. The court order came after a prisoner submitted a petition, stating that he lost his eyesight due to abuse by the administration of Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi. The commission was headed by Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari and included ex-chairman of Human Rights Commission Zohra Yousaf, former director-general FIA Tariq Khosa, chief secretaries of four provinces, interior secretary, and the federal health secretary. In its verdict, the court, headed by Justice Athar Minallah, said that the commission has been formed in view of the “alarming state of affairs regarding the serious violation of human rights and civil liabilities of prisoners incarcerated in prisons across the country.”
In January 2020, the commission presented its report and it painted a horrific picture of jails across the country. The report stated that the jails are overcrowded, have serious chances of spreading diseases, and showcase a wide array of human rights abuses. As per the report, there are 77,000 inmates in the country’s jails, although they have the capacity of only 56,634 individuals. The report stated that: “In Punjab alone, 29 out of the 41 prisons are overcrowded whereas in Sindh 8 prisons are overcrowded.”
In addition to the problem of overpopulation, the data shows the serious human rights violations in jails. As per data, there are almost 2100 prisoners with physical ailments, while around 2400 are suffering from contagious diseases like Hepatitis, HIV, and Tuberculosis, while 600 inmates suffer from mental diseases. Under the Pakistan Prison Rules, the prisoners have the right to adequate medical facilities. However, the report mentioned that almost half of the sanctioned posts of medical staff in jails are vacant.
The report also mentioned that the prisoners are not adequately informed about their rights at the time of sentencing and therefore continue to face a violation of human rights.
COVID-19 is still a serious threat and is spreading in the overcrowded jails of Pakistan, as the country is facing the second wave of the virus. As per media reports, earlier in May, over 300 prisoners were infected with the virus. Keeping in view the situation, high courts of all provinces ordered the provinces to release the individuals, jailed in minor crimes. According to media reports, Punjab was all set to release 20,000 prisoners from the jails to tackle the COVID-19 issue in March this year. However, the five-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad, revoked the high courts’ orders and suspended all bail orders. In its verdict, the top court said how the high courts could order the release of under-trial inmates. “Coronavirus is a grave matter. Under what pretense did the IHC issue the directives for releasing the prisoners?” the top court said. The decision led to the halting of all releases and till now the prisoners are overcrowded.
Expressing, its apprehension, Human Rights Watch stated that the release of 20,000 prisoners would have halved the number in Punjab jails. “A justice system that caused the problem of overcrowding in the first place also stood in the way of resolving it,” the HRW said in its statement.
The data, reports, and a visit to any local jail show that the prisoners in Pakistani jails are living in dire situations, and unfortunately, there seems to be no light of hope for them in the near future.