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Healthy state of prisons
is no coincidence that some 500 prisoners out of a
total of 2,500 kept in the Sialkot district jail
should have been found suffering from hepatitis.
Mainly a water-borne, infectious disease that can be
fatal, hepatitis is an alarmingly high-incidence
ailment prevalent in and outside the prisons. The
overcrowded prison in question was meant to house no
more than 660 inmates, and in that it is no
different from other prisons in the country. Our
detention centres notoriously lack basic health and
sanitation facilities, with the prevalent levels of
congestion putting the prisoners at a high risk of
contracting infectious diseases. No wonder that
resort to violence on the part of the inmates and
the existence of crime within jails remain the sorry
facts of prison life. There was a time when prison
officials at least used to commit themselves to the
need for prison reforms, but not anymore. The last
time one heard of reforms in that quarter was under
the amended Police Ordinance of 2002, but the
revamped law has not even taken off the ground yet.
The state of our prisons is pathetic: inmates are
routinely tortured; they are barely fed and clothed
and forced to live in subhuman conditions, with
little recourse to justice.
Part of the problem of poor health and hygiene found
among the prison population stems from the
unreasonably high number of under-trial prisoners
being kept in prisons alongside hardened criminals
and convicts. In many prisons no provision is made
for keeping juvenile prisoners in separate barracks.
Women, too, are among the most vulnerable groups of
inmates: a majority of them are booked under the
dubious Hudood Ordinances that presume them to be
guilty before so proven in a court of law. The need
for urgent prison reforms cannot be overemphasized.
It is time the government, with help from
international donor agencies, chalked out a
comprehensive reform plan. Under-trial prisoners,
and even convicts, have rights that must be
respected. The least of these is the right to live
in an environment that is not detrimental to health
or denies them basic hygiene.