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 Un Healthy state of prisons


It 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.