Prisons

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A little truth

Truth is a rare commodity and only a select few, let us call them the privileged ones, have access to it in these most of uncertain times. With polls happening within a few days, the commotion and furor of different political camps are giving birth to all kinds of propaganda, political gimmickry and jugglery. No matter what the circumstances, it doesn’t take much to have a fair idea of what is actually happening underneath the surface of things if one can afford to be objective and shun all personal biases. The current plight of the prisons department is a case in point.

It all started to unfold ever since the father-daughter duo of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Safdar (let Captain Safdar have some tranquility for now) landed in Adiala Jail following the Avenfield properties judgment. The prisons department all of a sudden sprouted to everyone’s attention, albeit for all the wrong reasons as ever. Even Mr Shahbaz Sharif, himself a three-time chief minister, was baffled to find his elder brother and niece in a “pathetic prison environment” which he deemed “highly detrimental” to their health and wellbeing. Given the great administrator that he is, the younger Sharif didn’t just stop there. In sheer distress he wrote a letter to both the caretaker prime minister and chief minister drawing their attention to the ‘abysmal conditions’ of the jail that his brother was languishing in.

And that was that; he had finally given the dog a bad name and demanded its killing. He had done his duty.

But, let’s be objective here. The question begging an answer here is that whose responsibility was it in the first place for all these years to ameliorate the prisoners’ suffering? Who had stopped him and the Punjab Home Department from introducing the much-needed reforms in the prisons department different NGOs and human rights organizations had been clamoring for years?

Provision of nutritious and healthy diet (chicken is served 6 times a week), clean drinking water, addressing prisoners’ medical and psychological issues, rehab of drug addicts and the facility to telephonically contact their families twice a week (other than personal interviews) are some of the concerns the department is grappling with on priority basis

What Shahbaz Sharif perhaps failed to notice was that the trio had only added to a mammoth total of 48,760 inmates living behind the iron bars of prisons in Punjab against an authorized capacity of just 24,000 or so. To one’s best understanding, the trio has been kept in a hitherto known A-class block with provision of all amenities and a separate boundary wall. The party’s victim narrative notwithstanding, this must be taken as a great blessing in itself against an occupancy level of 200%.

Let’s lay another misperception to rest here: The old system of class categories (A, B, C) in prisons has been abolished by an April 19th 2018 notification of the government of the Punjab Home Department No. SO (R&P)4-24/10(P-I). Now, as per amended rule 225 of the jail manual, all “convicted or under-trial prisoners shall be classified as (a) better class; (b) ordinary class; or (c) political class.” The same rule further clarifies a prisoner “to be classified as political prisoner… who commits a crime for political and not for any other criminal motive”. Since the crime wasn’t of a political nature, the trio could not be put under the political class category.

Another lie being churned out for public digestion is that they have all been ‘unlawfully’ put under solitary confinement. This is rather a technical point, one that needs to be understood unequivocally. Rule 252 states, “Better Class prisoners shall, where such accommodation is available, be kept apart from other prisoners and be accommodated in rooms or in association barracks notified by the Home department on the recommendations of Inspector General of Prisons; but such keeping apart shall not be construed as separate confinement, except when separate confinement is awarded as the prison punishment.” The manual further says that a prisoner shall bear expenses for the bedding, mattress, toiletries, television (maximum 21 inches screen), newspaper and other such accessories out of his/her own pocket and that the “Government shall not bear any expenditure on the provision of any facility to a better class prisoner other than those to which an ordinary class prisoner is entitled.”

Some assertions will always be disputed no matter what, but not the facts. Our media still tells us that prisons in Pakistan are no better than dungeons of the colonial era; that they serve you with ‘sand mixed daal’ there; that they treat prisoners no better than animals; and that it is a whole different world beyond the boundary walls of a prison facility where inmates are subject to all sorts of untold misery and violence. Having served as an officer in the department for about three years, I can say with conviction that nothing could be further from the truth. Provision of nutritious and healthy diet (chicken is served 6 times a week), clean drinking water, addressing prisoners’ medical and psychological issues, rehab of drug addicts and the facility to telephonically contact their families twice a week (other than personal interviews) are some of the concerns the department is grappling with on priority basis. One can find information regarding any inmate, under-trial or convicted, by simply visiting the official website of Punjab Prisons. No major prison riots or an escape, not a single major corruption case against an officer in the last decade are also to the department’s credit.

One understands that the whole Adiala episode isn’t without a political angle to it with elections just a couple of days away. The point that everyone is missing however is that an already fledgling institution’s plight is rendered further hopeless once its reputation has been blackened. Take the Police department’s instance for that matter. No matter how good a job they do even with the minimal wherewithal, they will always be branded as bad. And the public unfortunately won’t like it to be otherwise.

This mindset will have to change. Institutions must be nurtured and provided with the requisite resources, and not be made as scapegoats for a political party’s ulterior motives. The prisons department has come a long way in doing away with the old image associated with it and it’s about time that the society appreciated their little efforts in this regard.

George Orwell had once said that political language is designed to make lies sound truthful. Let institutions not fall prey to any of the politicians’ games. And let us continue with our search for the truth.

 

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