Pakistan: Overcrowding in Pakistan’s prisons is a ticking time bomb

By Our Staff Reporter

Islamabad: The Pakistani authorities’ failure to reduce severe overcrowding in prisons during the first wave of COVID-19 has left tens of thousands of prisoners dangerously exposed as infections and fatalities once again rise across the country, said a new report from Amnesty International and Justice Project Pakistan.

Prisoners of the Pandemic – The Right to Health and COVID-19 in Pakistan’s detention facilities examines the response of the Pakistani government and judiciary to the challenges of COVID-19 in prisons between March and July 2020. Despite the authorities’ stated objective of reducing Pakistan’s prison population to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the report finds that key decisions by the Supreme Court and administrative failings by prison authorities contributed instead to an increase in the prison population in the early months of the pandemic.

“With infections and fatalities rising daily, overcrowding in Pakistan’s prisons is a ticking time bomb. The authorities must learn the lessons of the first wave and urgently ensure a significant reduction in the country’s prison population,” Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International.

“It’s no secret that Pakistan’s prisons were dangerously overcrowded even before COVID-19 struck. The authorities recognised that special protective measures were needed for prisons – above all, a big reduction in prisoner numbers. A series of failures in the early stages of the pandemic meant that this goal was spectacularly missed, leaving people in detention dangerously exposed as the country approaches a second spike.”

Amnesty International and Justice Project Pakistan are calling on the Pakistani authorities to urgently submit lists of prisoners at risk who can be eligible for early, temporary or conditional release; to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights; and to follow through on any orders to implement early releases of women and children in prisons.

According to the Federal Ombudsman, the national overcrowding rate in Pakistan’s prisons is 134 percent, with significantly higher percentages depending on the prison. By the end of August 2020, at least 2,313 prisoners of a total population of 79,603 across the country had tested positive for COVID-19.

Reducing prisoner numbers

The overuse of arrests and detention including for minor offences, the frequent overuse of pre-trial detention and underuse of non-custodial measures, the backlog of cases in Pakistan’s courts, and the long delays between hearings contribute to bloating prison populations.

When COVID-19 cases began to be reported in Pakistan in March, announcements by prison authorities to the press seemed to indicate that steps were being taken almost immediately to help control the spread in prisons by reducing prison populations. According to media reports, at least 20,000 prisoners across the province of Punjab were scheduled to be released, a number that would have seen the prison population in the province almost halved.

The Islamabad High Court also issued directives to release pre-trial prisoners detained for non-prohibitory offences, and those whose bail was refused previously. The Chief Justice of the provincial high court of Sindh authorized an order made by a Judicial Magistrate to release 519 prisoners on bail.

However, on 30 March, the Supreme Court intervened and suspended all bail orders specifically granted on account of COVID-19. The Supreme Court’s decision checked the country-wide momentum to reduce prison populations and even led to the re-arrest of prisoners who had already been released in compliance with the directives of the Sindh High Court.

Compounding this, a request by the Supreme Court for prison authorities to prepare lists of at-risk prisoners who could be eligible for release was ignored by prison authorities, with no follow-up measures taken so far. Together, this meant that no steps were made to reduce the prison population through early releases.

“A justice system that caused the problem of overcrowding in the first place also stood in the way of resolving it. The response in the early stages of the pandemic ensured that prisons remained a teeming hotbed for COVID-19 transmission. The Pakistani authorities must not commit the same mistakes as a second wave looms over the country,” said Rimmel Mohydin.

To make matters worse, a lockdown imposed from April to June – followed by court holidays – forced courts to severely limit operations. As fewer bail hearings were taking place, the period between April to August 2020 actually saw a rise in the overall prison population from 73,242 to 79,603, an almost 8.7 per cent increase.

“In April this year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan outlined specific categories of prisoners who would be eligible for bail on account of their age and sentences, but those prisoners were never released. The Prime Minister, too, had reaffirmed the release of women prisoners nearly 3 months ago and yet over a thousand women continue to languish in jails, many with their children. Pakistan has a human rights obligation to act on these directives and prevent another human catastrophe,” said Sarah Belal, Justice Project Pakistan’s Executive Director.

‘No unnecessary arrests’

On 20 March, the Islamabad High Court ordered that no unnecessary arrests be made, after recognizing that “prisons, which are overcrowded, have high turnover and intolerable living conditions, could potentially become epicentres for outbreak of the deadly virus”. However, Amnesty International and Justice Project Pakistan found that there was a continued intake of prisoners with minimal precautions to prevent transmissions within prisons and no official steps were taken to limit prisoner intake or reduce the pace of arrests for petty crimes.

While recognizing that a range of offences warrant arrest and detention and that COVID-19 should not provide cover to those who commit serious crimes, the overuse of measures of deprivation of liberty for minor offences and the lack of consideration for non-custodial measures  is even more problematic in the context of a pandemic.

Indeed, during the outbreak, the police arrested and detained several individuals simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. This included health workers protesting their lack of resources and personal protection equipment, students protesting the lack of internet access to attend virtual classes, and a transgender rights activist detained for eight days in a prison with a known COVID-19 outbreak.

Dangerous prison conditions

The pandemic also laid bare the scarcities and systemic issues in Pakistan’s prison system.

As a result of overcrowding, in some prisons, between six and 15 prisoners may occupy a single jail cell built to hold a maximum of three individuals. Some prisoners interviewed for this report described having to sleep in shifts because there was not enough floor space for all of them to lie down at the same time.

In March, at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, prison authorities banned all visits to prevent transmissions. On 7 July, after almost four months, families were allowed to meet prisoners once every 15 days. Lawyers, however, were still not permitted to visit their clients.

Interviews with former prisoners and family members point to insufficient measures to support inmates to ensure continued communication with their loved ones and to be able to communicate confidentially with their lawyers.

Access to food, water and sanitation in prisons is precarious at the best of times. The lack of a clean and consistent supply of water was also found to be an alarming concern for prisoners, with many reporting that they did not have adequate water to drink or wash with.

“The appalling state of Pakistan’s prisons is a long-standing problem that has been ignored by all levels of government for years. The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed just how precarious the conditions in prisons are, and the threats these pose to the lives and health of prisoners, prison staff and the community at large,” said Rimmel Mohydin.

“The Pakistani authorities must tackle these systemic issues, ease the strain on the prison infrastructure and address the multiple human rights violations that take place behind prison walls every day.

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