Pakistan’s overcrowded prisons have been highlighted by a prominent rights group, which has called for reforms to the country’s criminal justice system. Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on Wednesday which revealed that Pakistan’s 100-plus jails held at least 88,000 inmates, despite an officially approved capacity of 65,168. The overcrowding has led to “compounded existing health deficiencies” and left 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 cells were holding as many as 15 prisoners when they were designed for just three people.
The report also highlighted rights abuses faced by prisoners, including torture, discrimination and lack of access to legal aid. Female prisoners were found to be particularly vulnerable to abuse by male prison guards, including sexual assault, rape and being pressured to engage in sex in exchange for food or favours. Women’s menstruation hygiene was cited as one of the areas of particular concern and neglect. The HRW report said poor hygiene in jails caused tuberculosis among inmates, which spreads “29 percent faster in jails” compared with the general population. 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.
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 However, the government can urgently reform the outdated colonial-era laws by bringing them in line with international standards,” Ijaz told Al Jazeera.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?”