Pakistan: prison reform needed

A joint report by Amnesty International and the Justice Project Pakistan, Prisoners of the Pandemic─ The Right To Health, notes that the reduction of overcrowding in prisons during the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic was not undertaken, even the second wave was now upon us, and there was a risk of a massive outbreak because of the overcrowding, which saw as many as 15 prisoners into a cell meant for three, and when prisoners were sometimes forced to sleep in shifts, as there was not enough floor-space for all to lie down at the same time. The report noted that judicial and administrative authorities, instead of reducing the prison population during the pandemic, acted to increase the overcrowding.

Though the pandemic requires emergency measures, its absence would not justify the overcrowding. That must be brought to an end anyhow. That requires a closer look at the justice system. One of the issues involved is the high proportion of under-trial prisoners. Put on top political workers arrested to prevent them from doing their thing, and who will never come to trial, and the jails are bursting at the seams. The report recommends early, temporary or conditional release of as many prisoners as possible, especially women and children.

Instead, it seems, the jail authorities have been using the pandemic as an excuse to tighten the screws: all visits were banned, and while family visits have been restored, lawyers’ visits have still not been permitted. The report also deplored the lack of nutritious food, clean water or sanitation. These are not as irrelevant as they seem, for they are relevant to the prisoners’ ability to combat the coronavirus if they catch it, as they are likely to. The report recommends that those with predisposing conditions should be prioritized for early release, while there should be a reduction in the arrests for petty crimes. That would be particularly effective, for it would mean quicker trials all around, as courts faced less pressure. The possibility of increasing the space available may be considered, by building more jails, but the real solution lies in reforming the justice system.