Islamabad, Pakistan – A leading rights group has sounded the alarm over Pakistan’s overcrowded prisons and called for reforms to the country’s criminal justice system.
In a report released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said more than 100 Pakistani prisons held at least 88,000 inmates, compared to an officially approved capacity of 65,168.
Overcrowding has “aggravated existing health problems” and made prisoners “vulnerable to communicable diseases”, HRW said in its 55-page report, A Nightmare for Everyone: The Health Crisis in Pakistan’s Prisons.
Some prison cells, according to the report, held up to 15 prisoners despite being designed for only three people.
“Pakistan has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the world,” he said, adding that many prisoners lacked access to medicine and treatment, even for basic health needs.
Prisoners are forced to live in unsanitary conditions and “lice, fleas, scabies and skin diseases are common in prison”, he said.
Apart from the lack of health care facilities in prisons, the report also highlighted the rights violations faced by prisoners, including torture, discrimination and lack of access to legal aid.
“Bad treatment” of female prisoners
The HRW report says women prisoners are subjected to “mistreatment and abuse” on a large scale.
Citing lawyers and rights activists, the report says women are particularly vulnerable to abuse by male prison guards, “including sexual assault, rape and pressure to have sex in exchange for food. or favours”.
Women’s menstrual hygiene was cited as one of the areas of particular concern and neglect. The rights body said it spoke to nine former detainees, three of whom said they were not “consistently provided” with sanitary pads.
“A fundamental problem is viewing sanitary napkins as a luxury item or a medical supply rather than a necessity,” said a former police official.
The HRW report says poor hygiene in prisons is the root cause of tuberculosis among inmates, which spreads “29% faster in prisons” compared to the general population.
The rights body also pointed to a shortage of medical staff for detainees, many of whom were over 60 and therefore vulnerable to health problems.
“The number of designated positions for doctors for all prisons in Pakistan was 193, but in 2020, 105 of these positions were vacant,” the report said.
A “dysfunctional” criminal justice system
Saroop Ijaz, the report’s author and senior lawyer for HRW’s Asia division, said the “broken” prison system is both “the cause and consequence of a dysfunctional and inequitable criminal justice system”.
“The scale of the problem is huge. However, the government can urgently reform outdated colonial-era laws bringing them into line with international standards,” Ijaz told Al Jazeera.
“Bail laws should be reformed to address overcrowding. Most inmates in Pakistani prisons have not yet been sentenced,” he added.
Ihsan Ghani Khan, a former inspector general of police, said that of the four pillars of the criminal justice system – police, prosecution, justice and prison – the last remained the most neglected.
“Whenever we talk about system reforms, the focus is almost always on the police,” Khan told Al Jazeera, adding that even the police system needs more work.
Khan, who had served as head of Pakistan’s National Counter-Terrorism Authority as well as prison reforms, said weak prosecutions and the judicial system lead to prison overcrowding.
“Prisons are a breeding ground for crime and can lead to prisoners becoming even more hardened. We are not concerned with building the capacity of prison staff, giving them training or giving them financial resources. There are no checks and balances. Supervisory visits are a travesty of inspection,” he said.
“If we don’t improve supervision, if we don’t provide money and resources, how can prisons improve? »