Prison time is not the only punishment in Punjab jails

A report published in a section of press has given insight into the grim situation prevailing in Punjab’s jails. Reportedly, a total of 42 jails in the province house 1,445 prisoners, who have been suffering from multiple diseases amid lack of treatment facilities. There are horrifying details as a large number of inmates have been diagnosed with infectious disease like AIDS, hepatitis B and C.

Overcrowding and scanty health facilities are the main reasons for the sorry state of affairs in Punjab prisons besides other reasons. According to the report, the jails house 272 prisoners who are suffering from HIV/AIDS, 517 from Hepatitis C, 137 from Hepatitis B while 460 prisoners are living with diabetes Mellitus. Moreover, the jails in Punjab are dangerously overcrowded, holding three times the population than the designed capacity, compromising the inmates’ health and safety.

The basic idea behind the confinement of offenders of various crimes is stated to be reformation of their attitude so that they could become better citizens of society. However, prisons in Punjab have turned into places where human attitude and health both deteriorate further. The objective to turn the jails into correction houses could not be achieved with the present living conditions, for which effective measures are needed.

More troubling is the news that these captives do not have access to proper medical facilities because most of the doctors are not willing to be posted in jails due to the social stigma attached to such a posting. Nevertheless, these problems are not unsolvable. Rather, it is the government’s apathy which has turned the situation from bad to worse.

Every government announces various reforms package but the implementation is the real issue and prisoners continue to languish in jails.

Media reports have often shed some light on the condition of jails in the country. It is an open secret that prisoners face inhuman treatment at the hands of guards while families also suffer due to this unjust system. It calls for immediate reform of the prisons departments not only in Punjab but also in all provinces. First, due to the imprisonment of a large number of offenders, it becomes difficult for the jail authorities to keep different categories of inmates in separate blocks and cells. The hazards of doing that should be obvious to everyone.

Overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions result in the spread of contagious diseases like hepatitis and scabies. Inmates in prisons across the country continue to live in poor hygiene conditions and contract such illnesses. Second, a large number of prisoners remain in jail due to their inability to pay for bail bonds. Many of them cannot afford legal fees and continue to languish in jails while waiting for their trials that linger on for months and years due to the non-availability of services of competent lawyers. These are the people against whom the courts have passed no final verdict nor have they gone into appeal before higher courts against the decisions of the lower courts. Until the cases are decided, they cannot be considered to have been convicted.

Because of overcrowding and the general attitude of jail authorities, there is barely any distinction between under-trial and convicted prisoners. Third, our jails do not offer any rehabilitation or reformative atmosphere for those criminals who need small doses of guidance for their character building. Instead of providing a congenial atmosphere, jails act as training centres for first-time offenders to commit bigger crimes and create a law and order situation in society.

There is a need to set up a special section in each prison whose responsibility should be the well-being of citizens and their proper counseling. The government should depute healthcare providers in prisons on a permanent basis and offer them additional incentives so that they could be motivated to serve in jails. Special cells need to be created for prisoners suffering from infectious diseases so that the spread of such illnesses could be stopped.

No decent society can lock people up and then forget about them. Overcrowding, unhygienic food, violence and unsatisfactory medical care are the unending issues of prisoners across Pakistan. There is an urgent need to develop a reforms policy for prisons across the country. The government of Punjab has to seriously take note of the living standards of prisoners in jails. The food quality, overcrowding and a proper and satisfactory medical care system should be established in jails while considering a reform policy for jails.

There is a need to provide free legal aid to those who are detained because of minor offences so that they are released in a timely fashion. Hardened criminals should be segregated from those who have committed minor offences. Women prisoners and juveniles should be put in rehabilitation classes in jails so that they become responsible citizens when released. The federal government as well as the chief ministers and authorities concerned must seriously take up the matter of reforming jails instead of merely making statements.