Ceaseless detention: The Plight of Prisoners in India and Pakistan

By: Haris Khan, S.M. Seraj Ali, Rushda Anwer, Nazia Parween 

New Delhi / Karachi / Badin / Udaipur

Hundreds reside together in a tight confinement, resting on thin mats on a stone floor. The hooks jutting out of the discolored walls serve as makeshift closets for the inmates. The residents peer through the gaps between the bars, waiting out their incarcerations. This is a typical barrack at the District Jail of Malir located in southern port city of Karachi.

“When there is no electricity, the barrack becomes a furnace, with smell and suffocation to an extent that one can’t even breathe properly,” says Ijaz Joseph, a prisoner at the facility.

Roughly 800 kilometers away, in a city known for its opulent royal residences and artificial lakes, a similar scene is witnessed. The Central Jail of Udaipur, Rajasthan, houses a total of 1,200 prisoners, surpassing it’s capacity by 300. Within the barracks, the summer heat singes through, baking the room into a damp space as the plaster on the walls rip off while the clothes left to dry on the ropes by the windows, block much of the light. Peering at the inadequate wobbling fans on the ceiling, Alok Kumar carefully navigates his way to his mattress. “If there are any more prisoners, they’ll be no space left for us,” he says, hanging his shirt on the hook by window.

Two of the many other jails of Pakistan and India, these establishments outnumber the guards by so many, and their authorized capacities by large numbers. Complimentary  to the overpopulation at Udaipur, the district jail in Malir was built to accommodate 1,800 prisoners but a total of 5,093 occupy 48 crammed barracks.

The overcrowded prisons are a shared concern for both the countries. Over the past 14 years, the two arch-rivals have recorded a common rise in incarceration rates. The World Prison Brief Data estimates that from 2000 to 2014, Pakistan’s incarcerated population sprung from 78,938 to 83,718, while India’s numbers went from 273,049 to 419,623.

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Unhygienic conditions combined with large populations has resulted in the prevalence of diseases within the prison facilities. This year alone, at least 181 HIV cases have been reported in prisons of Balochistan province in Pakistan, according to Syed Tahir Shahbaz, Federal Ombudsman for jail reforms.

Similarly, In India, 1.7% of male and 9.5% of female inmates were found HIV positive, according to a report  by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 2018.

“We inherited the prisons from the British Raj, the focus here lies on the punishment alone,” says Deputy Superintendent of Police, Arshad Shah, commissioned at District Jail Malir— that resembles the ruins of an old mid-sized fortress. He contends that the district-wise construction of jails could help in addressing the issue of overcrowding which ultimately helps in rehabilitating prisoners with the better living environment.

State of Rehabilitation in Indo-Pak 

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The concept of rehabilitation that helps an inmate in reintegrating into society, is often overlooked. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners also known as the Mandela Rules. It described the standard measures of rehabilitating prisoners and signifies that any measures of imprisonment can only be fulfilled if attempts are made to reintegrate prisoners into society upon release.         

Although countries like Brazil and Norway have adopted measures in line with this belief, a contrasting scenario is offered in India and Pakistan. Both countries provide social rehabilitation as an auxiliary feature of incarceration rather than a necessary one.

There are only two regular doctors for more than 5,000 inmates in district jail Malir.  Five more doctors have been taken from the health ministry who visit when required. The psychiatrist also visits on a weekly basis. However, no psychologist is available for corrective counseling of prisoners.

“We must also consider the political aspect of it,” says, Dr. Rochin Chandra, Director at the Center for Criminology and Public Policy based in Rajasthan, India. He blames political parties for overcrowded prisons in India. “To lower crime they design policies and advocate for longer prison terms,” he adds.

Rehabilitation methods adopted in the two countries remain limited to providing prisoners with technical and vocational training. Carpentry, electric and motor mechanic work along with computer classes, in some cases, are the most viable work options available.

Certain prisons have, however, designed centers and courses for the education of the prisoners. The Punjab Prisons under the Government of Punjab (Pakistan) provides literacy to inmates in 32 jails under its supervision.  Formal and informal education along with books can be acquired by prisoners. Allowed to appear in exams, a total of 2,284 prisoners have been granted educational remissions till date.

Programs of this nature are also conducted within the Tihar Prison of New Delhi, where a total of 4,344 prisoners are enrolled for various courses within the prison. The expenditure of the course along with required study material of pens, papers and books are borne by the government.

In addition to these attempts, certain organizations are involved particularly in providing rehabilitation through spiritual methods. Religious sermons are delivered to the inmates and the most dominant religion in each country is able to work more intricately with the prisoners.

Nabeel Zuberi, a sociologist in Karachi, places the burden on the ‘setup’ in which Pakistan and India are placed. “Jails should be redefined and instead of isolating inmates, work on their social attachment should be done,” says Zuberi. He contends that the societal structure in both countries stigmatizes prisoners on their release and any expectation of society rehabilitating the prisoners is a mistake.

Another organization Society for Advancement of Health, Education and the Environment (SAHEE) is working on the prison rehabilitation in Central Jail, Karachi. “We deliver the Criminon 4-step Program as a rehab method,” said Saleem Aziz Khan, founder and chairman of SAHEE. According to Khan, almost 1,500 prisoners have completely or partially done the program.

Juvenile Delinquents

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FORTIFIED: The main gate of Central Prison for Women and Youthful Offender Industrial School located in Karachi: PHOTO: Haris Khan Student of Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA

Not only in adult prisons but also in juvenile, there is a dearth of psychological assistance in the form of psychologists, juvenile detention therapists or youth correctional counselors at present in Prisons, as mentioned by Zulfiqar Ali, Assistant Sub-inspector at Youthful Offenders School, Karachi.

According to a 2013 report by  AGHS Child Rights Unit, a human rights and legal aid organization in Pakistan, the number of young boys sentenced to life imprisonment in Pakistan’s most populous state, Punjab, soared to 45%.

Abdullah Ahmed, 16-year-old and youngest of six in his family, has served nine out of the 30-month prison term at the school. “I used to work on a ladies stall in Quaidabad area,” recalls Ahmed. He further said that wanted to buy a motorcycle but hasn’t got any money from home so he tried to rob a mobile shop and was caught consequently.” Sitting in the garden surrounding the school building fortified by towering walls, Ahmed yearns for freedom every passing hour of the day.  

The Youthful Offenders School, located at the Central Prison of Karachi, is home to over 100 such stories.

In contrast to the Youthful Offenders School located in Karachi, the Ramnagar’s Observation Home located in Uttarakhand, India, presents a horrific experience of one of the former juvenile inmate. “All of us were struck by the batons. Some were hit on the head and some on the arms and other limbs. I received a blow on my head by hitting the wall in panic,” claims Mohan, a former juvenile offender. Abuse is common and goes unchecked in the facility.

Sitting with his feet perched on the bench, a travel bag in his lap, Mohan has come far from his past. Twiddling a screwdriver in his small wrinkled hands, he looks at the passing crowd, hoping to get a customer in need of getting their bag repaired. Over the two years of his freedom from the Juvenile home, Mohan has been trying to grow a beard but success has been slow. His oiled hair hints of a sun burnt past.
“I liked to travel. But I could never afford any tickets,” he recalls.

Arrested at the Banaras Railway Station for boarding the train without tickets, he was sent to the Government Observation Home for a period of nine months. “The days went by uselessly and I didn’t feel good inside,” he says, recalling the crying of children every night.

In the mornings, Mohan and his fellow inmates would study English and Hindi along with the basic usage of a computer, after a reasonably nourishing a breakfast. “Most reminiscent of my time there is my teacher telling me to leave and never do anything to come back here,” he remembers.

Ramnagar’s Observation Home was unwelcoming in many ways. Drugs and alcohol would easily be smuggled into the facility, he alleges. The general population of the home and the ‘seniors’ were visibly segregated. “These ‘seniors’ are elder in age and also in the crime, they commit such as murder and rape. They are kept separately and the officials keep an eye on them,” he says.

“I would change so much if I had the power to,” he says recalling the decaying walls and the harsh treatment of the officials. Wondering if an earthquake would crumble the place, he returns to his work. “It was in shambles.” he concludes.

According to him, the difference in crimes is evident even in the way the inmates are brought in to the home. Cases of a murder would warrant a beating by the officers in the police station. But once the ‘challan’ or receipt is given for the observation home, no harm can come to the juvenile offender inside, unless they were to indulge in scuffles.

Explaining the rehabilitation process practiced in India, former policeman and correctional expert, Amod Kanth elaborated that under the Juvenile Justice Care and Protection Act, communal support such as education, skill development, and financial support is provided to young inmates. “I hold very positive views on this and reformation is quite possible,” he says.

Situation of Women in Prisons

While efforts are being made to improve the prison conditions for young offenders, female  prisoners face harrowing situations in Indo-Pak Jails.

According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative NGO, the female prisoner population has gone up by 61% in India in the last fifteen years. In July 2018, 1,955 female prisoners were reported to be kept in custody at Pakistan Jails and out of these 1,225 were juveniles. The more shocking fact is that in Pakistan, there are male juvenile jails but no female juvenile jails. Female juveniles are kept with adult prisoners in jails.

“I don’t have the money for my bail that is why I can’t get out,” says Varshali Ram, a prisoner at Tihar Jail.  

Fuzail Ayubi, a Supreme Court Lawyer explained  that children of female prisoners are allowed to stay inside jails with their mothers up to 6 years of age. While there is a facility of baby units at certain prisons, there are not enough for all.

India houses a total of 1,401 jails of which only 18 are exclusively for women. The number of female prisoners according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data of 2015, stands at 17,834.

The lack of prisons with regards to the population of the prisoners has led to the creation of women enclosures in general prisons.  

However, female population in Pakistan’s prisons is 1.8% per 100,000 as reported by World Prison Brief in 2018. The condition of many female prisons is better than that of males. At Women Section of Central Jail, Karachi, women inmates are provided beds for resting, with no signs of overcrowding in the barracks. Infants stay with the offending mothers and receive primary education at a school present in the premises of jail. “They are suffering because of me,” said Parveen, an offender who has recently given birth to child at Central Jail, Karachi.

Cradling her infant in her arms she walks across the hallway to comfort the baby. Even with a veil covering her face, the distress was visible. The dark circles around her eyes showed a lack of sleep. Handing over her baby to a fellow inmate, she massages her arm as she describes her ordeal of giving birth in a prison. “The medical block had only one doctor and the jail staff was assisting her. This was not even their work.” she says, while worrying about the baby.

The initial days post-pregnancy were very difficult. The medical block is similar to a government hospital with little or no ventilation. However, Parveen and her child were able to get past it. Today, she is one of the several other women who reside with their children in the prison.

According to a report submitted by the Federal Ombudsman before the Supreme Court in 2018, there are  1,955 women imprisoned in different jails of the country. In Sindh, at least 3,000 women prisoners are housed in 26 different jails convicted of kidnapping and ransom. Over 90 are convicted of murder charges.

Prison minorities in dire straits

malir jail

ENTER HERE: Main gate of District Jail Malir, Karachi where at-least 100 minority prisoners are held: PHOTO: Haris Khan / Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA

Even if there are laws intact for gender-based protection of prisoners, they scantily secure minority prisoners on ethnic levels in Indo-Pak jails. According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) of India, out of 2.82 lakh under trial inmates, over 55% are Muslims, Dalits, and tribals. Collectively, these three communities form a population of 39% with a share of 14.2%, 16.6% and 8.6% of the population respectively according to the 2011 census.

Even while there is a high number of Muslim convicts in jails, basic facilities to accommodate their religious or spiritual needs are missing. According to one former inmate, prison facilities do not offer a designated place for prayers.   

“There was a small temple but no mosque or specific place to offer prayers for Muslim inmates,” said Iqbal Ali, another former juvenile offender at Ramnagar’s Observation Home. Wearing his white kurta and pyjamas, Ali glistened in the morning sun. A fragrance followed his light steps across the road. “Now that I’m free, I can finally pray in a mosque or congregation,” he says.

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A view of District Prison Badin through bars which houses 369 prisoners out of which 10 are non-Muslims : PHOTO: Haris Khan / Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA

After his release, Ali started doing odd jobs for a garment store in his town of Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh. Lately, the store has given him the job of an apprentice salesman. Ali carries his skull cap with him everywhere, either in his hand or on his head.

“I wish they celebrated Eid there,” he says, unhappy that his fellow inmates would get a celebration for their festivals but not him.

Cases of atrocities against Muslim prisoners have soared in recent years. In April, Hindustan Times reported that Shabbir, an under-trial at the Tihar Prison of New Delhi, was assaulted by officials of the facility. Horrifyingly, a metal rod with the ‘Om’ symbol was heated and branded on Shabbir’s back.

“There is a certain bias that exists against these communities,” says Faheem Khan, a Delhi High Court Lawyer. He asserts that laws like UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) crack down on Muslim communities in particular.

“A number of people have been acquitted after years in prison with little or no compensation for the time lost,” he adds.

Ramesh Nathan, of the National Dalit Movement for Justice, accused that Dalits are being intimidated by filling of false lawsuits against them and this becomes the reason for the growing population of Dalits in Indian prisons. “Whenever a Dalit files a case under the atrocities act, he faces a false case under some other penal code provision by the culprits as a countermeasure in order to stop him,” he stated.

However, not much different from India, in Pakistan the minorities are a soft target across bars too. 

“We have a strong sense of fear in our hearts while staying in the prisons and whenever some ethnic confrontation happens outside we get very much frightened for our lives, said Ijaz Joseph, a Christian prisoner among 100 other minority prisoners at District Jail Malir.

According to the Country Report on Human Rights Practices by United States Department of State, published in 2013, minority prisoners generally are afforded poorer facilities than Muslims and often suffered violence at the hands of fellow inmates. 

“The situation is improving gradually as now we have access to jails where we can preach prisoners of our faith,” said Nazir, a Christian preacher. Nazir visits Malir Jail every Saturday to give lectures to Christian inmates in a Chapel built for Christian prisoners in Malir jail in 2016.

The chapel is built in front of the prison’s mosque. “Prisoners are allowed to visit their worship places whenever they want, said DSP Shah. “We don’t discriminate on the basis of religion and even in their religious festivals minorities are allowed to celebrate them according to their beliefs.”

While addressing to the Centre for Social Justice and the People’s Commission for Minorities’ Rights (PCMR) in Lahore, the minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs, Ijaz Alam Augustine announced that a Bible-based syllabus for Christian prisoners will soon be adopted by the 35 prisons of Pakistan’s Punjab province.

Open Prisons : A Window with Two Horizons

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RESTRICTED FREEDOM: Family members of the prisoners stand next to their residence at the Open Air Camp: PHOTO: Rushda Anwer / JMI

Perhaps one of the most significant step towards rehabilitation, if only one in a few, the Open Air Camps provide a semblance of social rehabilitation in both countries.

“This is a second chance at life,” claims Kalu Lal standing outside the gates of the Open Air Camp in Udaipur, Rajasthan. “Now I can live with my family and earn a living,” he adds, as eager customers flock around his small tea stall outside the prison area.

Unlike his counterparts in Pakistan, Lal has the advantage of residing with his family in small quarters as provided as accommodation. Additionally, he can travel anywhere with that guarantee that he will return to the area by evening for the roll-call.

“A lot can be better here,” says Meenakshi, a daughter of a prisoner who has been in the open air camp for the past 5 years. 

Complimentary to Lal’s experience is the life of Abdul Samad at the Open Prison in Badin, Pakistan.

“I had a delightful experience there,” says Abdul Samad, now a former prisoner. Sitting at his home in Karachi, he recalls that he doesn’t even think of calling it a jail.

Samad who had spent the last 4 years of his imprisonment in open prison Badin, describes his experience at the facility as a blessed one. The prisoners used to cultivate crops on the land, make huts, do fishing, cook food in mud ovens and chop trees to make things for themselves. However, every evening, he would have to return to the confines of the main jail.

These camps despite of having a rehabilitative ambiance, however, are not away from problems.

In India, the daughter of a prisoner who resides in the camp with her family, claims the facilities are at a bare minimum. “The washrooms are dirty and barely usable,” she says as she carries a bucket of water to her family’s quarters. “Only one tap provides fresh water and we have to carry it back to our room every time we need it,” she says, out of breath in the summer heat. An air of abandonment surrounds the site of the prison, with a lack of greenery.

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Contrary to this, the open prison in Pakistan was a flourishing site of agriculture.  “I remember how soothing the peaceful farmland was. The lush green gardens were therapeutic for depressed minds like me,” explained Samad.  

However, the 2,000 acre of land has been vacated by authorities who cite a number of issues including various escape attempts made by inmates that caused trouble in neighborhood villages.

“At least 111 prisoners have escaped from the open prison in Badin,” says Usman Khaskheli, head constable of  Open Prison Badin.

Adding to this, politically motivated transfers of prisoners along with water shortage for cultivation fueled the closing of the prison in 2012.

For the residents of these camps, reintegrating with society becomes easier.
“I want to be an Administrative Officer,” says Meenakshi, as her father leaves for work from the open air camp, driving his auto-rickshaw. “He can work now and we can be together as a family again,” she adds, returning to help her sisters in their work.

“The people of the nearby villages used to visit with different food items for us,” said Samad. He believes that the interaction with the locals in Badin had helped him a lot in finding his lost self esteem again.

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