Islamabad, Pakistan – A prominent rights group has raised alarm over Pakistan’s overcrowded prisons and called for reforms to the country’s criminal justice system.
In a report released on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Pakistan’s more than 100 jails had at least 88,000 inmates, against the officially approved capacity of 65,168.
The overcrowding has “compounded existing health deficiencies” and left the prisoners “vulnerable to communicable diseases,” the HRW said in its 55-page report, titled A Nightmare for Everyone: The Health Crisis in Pakistan’s Prisons.
Some jail cells, the report said, were holding as many as 15 prisoners when they were designed for just three people.
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“Pakistan has one of the world’s most overcrowded prison systems,” it said, adding that many prisoners were unable to access medicine and treatment for even basic health needs.
Prisoners are forced to live under unsanitary conditions and “lice, fleas, scabies and skin diseases are common in prison,” it said.
Besides the lack of healthcare facilities in prisons, the report also highlighted rights abuses faced by the prisoners, including torture, discrimination and lack of access to legal aid.
‘Mistreatment’ of female prisoners
The HRW report said female prisoners are being subjected to “mistreatment and abuse” on a large scale.
Quoting lawyers and rights activists, the report said women were especially vulnerable to being abused by male prison guards, “including sexual assault, rape, and being pressured to engage in sex in exchange for food or favours”.
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Women’s menstruation hygiene was cited as one of the areas of particular concern and neglect. The rights body said it spoke to nine former female prisoners, of which three said sanitary pads were not “routinely provided” to them.
“One fundamental problem is viewing sanitary napkins as a luxury item or a medical supply rather than a necessity,” a former female police official said.
The HRW report said poor hygiene in jails caused tuberculosis among inmates, which spreads “29 percent faster in jails” compared with the general population.
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The rights body also pointed out a shortage of medical staff for the inmates, of which a large number were over 60 years of age and therefore vulnerable to health issues.
“The number of designated posts for medical officers for all prisons in Pakistan was 193, but as of 2020, 105 of these posts were vacant,” the report said.
‘Dysfunctional’ criminal justice system
Saroop Ijaz, the author of the report and senior counsel for HRW’s Asia division, said the “broken” prison system is both a “cause and a consequence of a dysfunctional and inequitable” criminal justice system.
“The scale of the problem is enormous. However, the government can urgently reform the outdated colonial-era laws by bringing them in line with international standards,” Ijaz told Al Jazeera.
“Bail laws should be reformed to address overcrowding. Most of the inmates in Pakistani prisons are yet to be convicted,” he added.
Ihsan Ghani Khan, a former Inspector General of Police, said out of the four pillars of the criminal justice system – police, prosecution, judiciary and prison – the last remained the most neglected.
“Whenever we talk about reforms in the system, the focus is almost always on police,” Khan told Al Jazeera, adding that even the police system needed more work.
Khan, who had served as the head of Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority as well as on prison reforms, said weak prosecution and judiciary resulted in prison overcrowding.
“Jails are a nursery of crime and can lead to prisoners even becoming more hardened. We don’t care for capacity building for the prison staff, imparting training or giving them financial resources. There is no check and balance. The supervisory visits are a mockery of inspection,” he said.
“If we don’t improve supervision, if we don’t provide money and resources, how can the jails improve?”