Reforming Pakistan’s prisons

Published: August 13, 2013

LAHORE: At the time of Partition and its independence, Pakistan inherited the prison system from the British as a colonial legacy. During the colonial days, the system of prison was designed to detain the freedom fighters. In the West, punishments were awarded in the form of torture or public executions till the 17th century. This system was characterised by what amounted to legalised discrimination, violence, revenge, and penitence during the medieval ages and ancient times.

Going to prison as a place of punishment after conviction is an 18th century invention. It was seen as a humanitarian alternative to the harsh and brutal penal methods of the Dark Ages. It was also believed that loneliness of the criminals in a solitary confinement would make them repent, resulting in their reformation and rehabilitation. The humanitarian alternative, however, remains an inhumane place in various Third World countries as well as countries in the West.

There are 32 prisons in Punjab with an authorised capacity of 21,527 but at present they house 52,318 prisoners. Sindh has 22 prisons with a capacity of 10,285 but they house 14,422 prisoners. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has 23 prisons with an authorised capacity of 7,982 and they house 7,549 prisoners. Balochistan has 11 prisons with a capacity of 2,173 and the number detained is 2,946.

If we include prisons of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, altogether there are 99 prisons in Pakistan. The authorised capacity of these prisons to detain prisoners is 42,670. However, 78,328 prisoners are housed in these prisons. Hence, it is obvious that the prisons in Pakistan are overcrowded and the prison system holds 35,000 more prisoners than its designed capacity. Thousands of prisoners are waiting for trial as the prison population grows owing to an increasing crime rate in Pakistan. Instead of reforming criminals, the prison system in the country proves a fertile ground for their further nurturing.

This state of sorry affairs is compounded by an unfriendly and sluggish criminal justice system. Complicated procedural laws often prove too obscure for lay people to understand. It is also crucial to note that there is only one prison staff training institute in the whole of Pakistan. According to a Punjab University report published in 2011, inefficiency and corruption mark the prison system in Pakistan. While the prisons are plagued with administrative and financial problems, security devices are either not functioning or missing altogether.

An important step to reform the prison system and culture is to amend the rules and procedures. The Pakistan Prison Rules are 28 years old and need to be updated. Training of the prison staff at home and abroad is minimal. Likewise, new medical laboratories should be established. Water treatment plants are insufficient or non-functional and this needs to be fixed because this spreads disease among inmates. Use of leg irons, fetters, shackles and chains is common. Unnecessary physical punishments are part and parcel of life in jails. The weaker section, particularly women and adolescent prisoners are more susceptible to abuse, including sexual violence.

The first prison reform programme was introduced in Pakistan in the 1950s under the chairmanship of Colonel Salamat Ullah, who was a former inspector general of prisons for UP in pre-Partition India. Later, different reform committees were constituted by the federal government to redress prisoners’ grievances. The recommendations of these committees were invariably given official approval but hardly ever implemented, mainly because of financial constraints or lack of political will.

It is common practice in prisons that in order to obtain meals and other facilities, prisoners, juveniles and women are forced to bribe the prison staff in many ways. I request the Supreme Court of Pakistan to take note of this sorry state of affairs and order a reform of the country’s prisons.

Sarmad Ali

Quaid-e-Azam Law College

Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Avtar
    Aug 14, 2013 - 3:07AM

    I would like to add that about 200 years ago, Britain also used to banish criminals to penal colonies such as Australia, and some in South America. Some were sent to prison for stealing bread.


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