Pakistan’s jails are overcrowded and packed beyond capacity. Despite several reform committees formed and recommendations for improvements including building more prisons and increasing the minuscule budgets, little has changed over the years.
According to a recent report submitted by the Federal Ombudsman to the Supreme Court, a total of 77,275 inmates are imprisoned in 114 jails against a capacity of 57,742. Majority of the inmates, totaling around 48,000 are under-trial prisoners who have not even been convicted yet.
Punjab has the vast majority of prisoners as 47,077 inmates are incarcerated in 42 jails against a capacity of 32,477. Similarly Sindh and Khyber Pakthunkhwa also have overcrowded jails with 17,239 and 10,871 inmates respectively. Only Balochistan is housing prisoners as per capacity with 2,088 inmates against a capacity of 2,585. Overall, there are 1,204 women and 1,248 juvenile inmates across the country.
Prison overcrowding poses great risks to inmates as well as to jail officials. There are frequent scuffles over space as prisoners are cramped in prison cells. Many inmates who have a history of violence may be housed together with vulnerable inmates and even risk officer safety. Additionally, inmates in overcrowded prisons do not have the same access to healthcare and hygiene facilities.
Overcrowding can lead to an increase in illness and disease among inmates. Inmate visits are also affected by overcrowding conditions and inmates do not get their scheduled visits. Experience has also shown that inmates in overcrowded prisons suffer from stress and tension, turning violent against other inmates and officers.
The PTI government has yet to take serious steps to address the crisis. There is an urgent need for reforms as the vast majority of the inmates are under-trial prisoners. One way to relieve the pressure on jails is pre-trial release, particularly on minor misdemeanours, leaving inmates free until they are convicted. Many inmates languish in prisons for years and are eventually declared innocent.
Due to the large number of inmates, even prisons are unable to play a corrective and reformative role. This is unfortunate for inmates and their families as there is always a risk they may commit more crimes when released. More prisons may serve as a partial solution to the problem.
There is still no jail in Islamabad and construction has been pending since 2009.There should be a jail in every district headquarters with separate enclosures for women and juveniles. There can be no foot-dragging on the appalling conditions of prisons as the constitution grants basic human rights to every prisoner.