Intermediate exams were recently organized for ten inmates held for murder at the Adiala jail. This should spark a much delayed debate in Pakistan about the balance the country’s prison system needs to strike between punishment and reform. It must be kept in view throughout this discussion, that a majority of prisoners are returnees. Why is this the case? Why, after undergoing the horrors of jail time in Pakistan, do criminals continue to remain criminals after release?

There are a number of issues. Once convicted, there is little incentive for inmates to study or reform their lives. Because of employment restrictions, most will return to their old ways to make money. Criminal networks are strong and persuasive, and without other options available, it is easy to fall back to crime. The government does give prisoners a fixed remuneration for studying but this is a few rupees an hour and is received at the end of a jail term. There are no other concessions made. Additionally, there is a lack of uniformity in prison policies. Jails fall under provincial governments and there are coordination failures between relevant departments, for example, the education and home departments in the case of prison education. Ideally, the debate should be wider in scope, involving training programs for prisoners as well. Of course, none of this sounds particularly savory to the public and it is tricky for the government to defend. After all, why should tax money be spent on bettering the lives of murderers and thieves? And the answer does not lie in showing humanity to the bad guys, but in making society a safer place.

Should the Punjab government with over 50,000 prisoners, many returning repeatedly, not take prison education seriously? If there is no chance for improvement, won’t these inmates return (and re-return) to society as hardened criminals? Programs must be set up to help inmates with good jail records find jobs after prison. If one estimates the cost of repeated crime and maintaining a circular prison system, it cannot be much greater than the cost of helping ex-convicts become productive citizens.