Prisons in Pakistan | Pakistan Today

Prisons in Pakistan

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In the middle of 19th century, Russian literary maestro, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was sentenced to four years rigorous imprisonment in a Siberian prison. During confinement, he authored his magnum opus titled “The House of Dead” wherein he claimed “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”. Dostoevsky’s assertion has a humanitarian essence as it stresses on the fact that a state’s treatment of its most oppressed, unwelcomed and vulnerable individuals reflects the extent of  civilisation which is prevalent in it. In defence of human liberty and dignity, by sharing his own experience and analysis, he successfully exposed the injustice and savagery of the penal system of Tsarist era.

In the dark ages, the punitive system of the West was infamous for public tortures, mutilation of criminal bodies and executions at scaffolds. In the 18th century, prison system appeared as a humanitarian substitute to the aforementioned vicious methods of penalisation. Human rights campaigns of the 19th century led to emergence of the concepts of rehabilitation and technical alteration of the deviants.  In a nutshell, the civilised world shunned the idea of retribution and adopted therapeutic approach in penology i.e. curing the criminal tendencies through psychoanalysis.

The prison system of Pakistan presents a sorry state of affairs; it is a cumbersome and outmoded colonial legacy still governed by archaic laws, for instance, The Prisons Act of 1894, , The Punjab Borstal Act, 1926, Good Conduct Prisoners Probation Release Act,1926  and Pakistan Prison Rules 1978 etc. The system is inherently biased and elitist; the British used it primarily as an instrument to repress political dissent and curb rebellious tendencies of natives. Our prison system is inundated with malaises of the most grievous and obnoxious kind; the prisons in Pakistan can hardly claim as centres for rehabilitation but inversely hardens the behaviour of criminals.

Prison system in Pakistan is suffering from multiple maladies; the most vicious to my mind are:

Firstly, prisons in Pakistan are abundantly overcrowded; Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan till April 2015  gave the figure of total prison population as 80,169 against official capacity of 46705. The Prison Rule No 745, envisages that each inmate must get minimum of 18 square metres in a barrack, however, in practice the prisoners in the barracks are not even able to turn if they lie alongside each other. Overcrowding begets other problems such as, transmittable diseases (TB, Hepatitis C, HIV), sanitation issues, food scarcity, increased violence and negatively affects the ability to administer prisons.

Second, The Prison Act 1894 recommends an arrangement whereby under-trial prisoners (still innocent), political convicts, terrorists, petty criminals, serious offenders, habitual offenders and first time offenders are kept separate, however, in practice all  categories are frequently mixed up in barracks. Approximately 69 percent of the total prison population comprises under-trial prisoners, unlawful amalgamation results in prisons becoming a breeding ground for criminality, delinquency and immorality. Resultantly, the under trials who are acquitted or those convicted of petty offences when released are often repeatedly apprehended in heinous crimes.

Third, professional capacity of prison staff is much below the desired level, lacking in adoption   to modern concepts of prisoners psychology, rehabilitation programmes, imparting skills development and awareness in crime sociology. Though prison system is a provincial subject but till date no Provincial prison training institute exists in Pakistan, there is only one institute i.e. National Academy of Prison Administration (NAPA) which functions under the Central Government.

Fourth, unwarranted physical punishments are frequently inflicted on the prisoners, which commonly turn into sad episodes of merciless beatings. The purpose behind incarceration is rehabilitation of the criminal; however, this object is undermined by acts of torture, ill treatment and mental abuse.

Fifth, medical facilities available in our prisons are deplorable; there is an acute shortage of quality doctors and reliable medical laboratories. Prison rules patently ignore the issue that whether a prisoner suffering from a mental disease can consult an independent psychiatrist. The medical officer of the prison or a doctor from a public hospital checks the prisoner and often rules out any psychological issues.

Sixth, prisons in Pakistan are states within a state, where a separate economy thrives; comforts are directly proportional to one’s bank balance and political connections; if one have necessary wherewithal, prison staff would dutifully arrange all accessories, e.g. drugs, liquor, quality food, gambling, hospital stay, home visits, cell phones.  Use of cell phones inside prison walls is a serious matter as the criminals especially those linked to militant groups can misuse it. The cell phone jammers only work in those barracks where poor and vulnerable prisoners reside i.e. those who can’t bribe the prison staff.

Seventh, the prison authorities exploit prisoners when the formers want to meet their loved ones. Such meetings are often arranged by greasing the palms of wardens. The poor mechanism for conjugal visits of spouses of inmates is another ignored issue, as it occasionally results in financial and sexual exploitation of vulnerable women.

Eighth, due to indifferent attitude of prison wardens many underprivileged prisoners are denied legal aid and right to consult a lawyer, which patently infringes their right to a fair trial guaranteed by Article 10- A of the Constitution. Lastly, our criminal justice system lacks innovation; under the current scheme, after conviction, a judge has two options — incarceration or the imposition of a fine. Where fine is unsuitable, imprisonment is the sole option (even in petty offences). We need alternatives to incarceration e.g. probation and community service.

Justice Marshall once said “A prisoner does not shed his basic constitutional rights at the prison gate”, that a

person is not entirely stripped of his constitutional rights when he is detained. Genesis of our Constitution lies deep in spirit of social justice and egalitarianism, away from feudal tendencies and state callousness, sustaining itself by divine trust on man and his sacred dignity. Article 14 of Pakistani Constitution assures dignity of man and protects him against torture; denying this fundamental right to prisoners is tantamount to, holding the Constitution responsible for dehumanisation and brazenly renouncing International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1984 (ratified by Pakistan in 2010).

Modern prison system is based on 6 Cs i.e. Custody, Care, Control, Correction, Cure and Community; its goal is rehabilitation and re-adjustment in the society. Around the world, Prisons are tools of imparting various trades/skills in inmates e.g. farming, live stock, bee-keeping, embroidery, fishery, poultry and gardening. We must modify our idea of justice; rebuff orthodox punitive philosophy and adopt a reformative and therapeutic approach.

Our corrupt, deteriorated and counterproductive prison system illustrates collapse of the rule of law and failure of criminal justice system. The dreadful injustices caused to poor and vulnerable inmates are never compensated; their life is anonymous and their voices are out of earshot, under such circumstances, these fortified castles will only produce hardened criminals not rehabilitated individuals. JL Nehru’s observation during his stay at Naini prison aptly describes current situation of prisoners in Pakistan, when he wrote “The inmates brood and warp themselves in angry thoughts of fear, revenge and hatred; forget the good of the world, the kindness and joy, and live only wrapped up in the evil. From time to time the prisoner’s body is weighted and measured. But how is one to weigh the mind and the spirit which wilt and stunt themselves and wither away in this terrible atmosphere of oppression”



  1. Riaz Ahmad said:

    Never mind prisons, Pakistan itself is a gigantic open prison its poor and ordinary citizens.

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