The last few weeks of unwilling confinement in our homes have been, to say the least, unsettling. Amid the fear and anxiety of what lies ahead, there is also recognition and realization of the liberties we have so often taken for granted, in particular the rights to movement and assembly. Yet our confinement within the relative safety of our homes â€“ where standards of hygiene and the practice of social distancing may more readily be observed â€“ is also a luxury.
The reality of the 77,275 inmates confined in jails across Pakistan, a majority of whom are still under trial, is very different. For many of them, continued incarceration may, in fact, become a death sentence. The 114 prisons across Pakistan are overcrowded â€“housing a population around 34 percent higher than sanctioned capacity â€“ with questionable standards of hygiene and sanitation, inadequate attention to the nutritional needs of inmates, and limited access to health care services.
Prisoners living in such conditions are particularly vulnerable to contagious diseases. According to a report submitted before the Islamabad High Court earlier this year, across Pakistan 1,823 inmates suffer from Hepatitis, 425 have HIV, 173 suffer from tuberculosis, 594 from mental illnesses and 2,192 from other ailments. A worrying majority of prisons are ill-equipped in terms of both medical personnel and equipment.
According to Justice Project Pakistan, more than 108 posts of medical officers in prisons across Pakistan stand vacant, while 10 percent of prisons do not have ambulances. In such circumstances, it is then no surprise that reports of the first positive coronavirus case at the Camp Jail, Lahore, which has a prisoner population of 3,500, created much panic last week, and led to calls across the board for the release of prisoners.
In the current environment of joblessness and economic distress, there is merit to the courtâ€™s concerns. But it is important that the Supreme Court determine the matter quickly, for any delay may come at the cost of the health or lives of prisoners. At particular risk are the 600 mentally ill and 1,500 elderly prisoners currently confined in jails around the country.
There appears to be an international consensus regarding the particular vulnerability to coronavirus of prison populations, which are often confined in closely proximate spaces that render self-isolation and physical distancing impossible. It is rightly feared that prisons can serve as hotbeds for transmission of the virus.
The UN Commissioner for Human Rights has pressed countries to not neglect persons behind bars, and take immediate action to reduce the number of inmates in various detention facilities. Several countries around the world including the US, Iran, Canada, Italy, Germany and India have paid heed to the Commissionerâ€™s warning, and released a significant number of prisoners. Over the last few days, the judiciary in Pakistan also moved into action. The Islamabad High Court ordered the release of 408 prisoners convicted for minor offenses. The Lahore High Court, on the other hand, laid down a set of criteria for grant of bail to prisoners, prioritizing release of undertrial prisoners (UTPs) booked for minor offenses, and the elderly, juvenile and female convicts. In Sindh, the High Court ordered the release of prisoners who, reportedly, had neared the end of their sentence but remained confined on account of their failure to pay fines.
However, earlier this week, the Supreme Court suspended the above-mentioned judgments of the High Courts, and prohibited the provincial governments from releasing prisoners from jails. The Supreme Court is keen to first develop a sound criteria for release of prisoners, while at the same time ensuring that persons released do not pose a threat to public safety and security. In the current environment of joblessness and economic distress, there is merit to the Courtâ€™s concerns. But it is important that the Supreme Court determine the matter quickly, for any delay may come at the cost of the health or lives of prisoners. At particular risk are the 600 mentally ill and 1,500 elderly prisoners currently confined in jails around the country. What a travesty of justice that would be!
At the last date of hearing, the Supreme Court accordingly sought reports from the Inspectors General, Prisons from across Pakistan regarding the capacity of and population in prisons, details of the different categories of UTPs and convicts, and of particularly vulnerable inmates, such as women and prisoners over 60 years of age. The Court also directed prison authorities to ensure that new entrants are duly screened for coronavirus and that arrangements are made for quarantining affected prisoners.
It is hoped that the final order passed by the Supreme Court will address overcrowding in prisons, and provide for the release of vulnerable inmates; direct relevant authorities to ensure adequate hygiene and provision of medical facilities; call for the introduction of effective social distancing protocols, and institution of effective monitoring (and where necessary quarantine) of released persons.
Sahar Zareen Bandial