LAHORE - Most of the prisoners languishing in dozens of Punjab jails can easily skip “hard labour” at a cost of fixed bribe to prisons staff as the government has failed to develop a mechanism to properly implement the rigorous punishment awarded to convicted criminals which are no less than a burden if they don’t work.

Even more shocking tale narrated by inmates carries chapters of torture on unprivileged prisoners, unlawful treatment with under-trial detainees, and non-payment for any skilled labour in the jails.

There are more than 20,000 convicted prisoners in Punjab’s 38 prisons. No less than 8,000 among them are on death-row. Although this makes a handsome and dedicated workforce, the Punjab’s prison industry exits only on papers owing to multiple factors including lack of investment, training, seriousness, and rampant corruption.

Only a few products are manufactured in Punjab’s jails located in Sialkot, Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi districts. Footballs stitched in the Sialkot jail and carpets manufactured in Lahore’s jail are marketed and sold in the open market. But, all other products like blankets, chorpoy, furniture, and rug are distributed among jails for internal use.

Similarly, the furniture items are sold to government institutions at very low prices. The prisoners are denied wages since such payments are adjusted at departmental level.

However, authorities say most of the inmates “don’t know anything and they are not expert in any field”. According to Punjab prisons chief, the prisoner need proper training and education before starting skilled labour; therefore, the government is unable to fully utilise the workforce available in prisons.

On the other hand, insiders say, the influential inmates sit idle in barracks by bribing the policemen while prisoners with poor background have to work for several hours for two meals a day. Ironically, in some facilities, several convicts are virtually running the prison administration as they keep control over other inmates and assert their authority.

The penniless prisoners are denied incentives even though they work for more than 12 hours a day. Also, the poor are robbed of their belongings and they are often humiliated by the jail administration. On the contrary, the hardened criminals and those belonged to well-off families enjoy all available facilities in prisons ranging from mobile phone service to drugs.

As per law, the under-trial prisoners cannot be forced for hard labour. But, in many jails, such prisoners have to work in jails and at the residences of officers to flee torture.

Several inmates who spoke to The Nation on the condition of anonymity last week complained that they were subjected to torture by jail officials as they failed to bribe them. Some of those interviewed were recently released from prisons.

“If you will bribe the jail staff regularly, you will be regarded and given importance. Otherwise, the prison will become a hell for you,” said a 55-year-old man who spent several years in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail. “When I was freed from the prison, I was not paid even a penny or any other incentive. I had to work for more than eight hours in the jail. I also had worked at the house of an officer as gardener for several years,” he added.

Another inmate who lives in the Lahore district jail said that gangs of convicted prisoners are in fact running the day-to-day affairs of the jails. “There is a nexus between the jail staff and gang leaders. In most of the cases, the gangs assign work to their fellow inmates. They (gangsters) run the day to day affairs of the prisons on behalf of the staff. They themselves distribute food to the inmates and assert their authority in every matter,” says the 30-year-old inmate, requesting anonymity.

According to a middle-aged man who spent seven years in jail in a narcotics case and was released most recently: “If anybody denies the orders of the gangsters, he will be subjected to torture on the spot.”

“No one can challenge their orders. They (gangsters) show “All OK” picture to the high officials during their visit to the jails. In return, such criminals enjoy complete freedom inside jails.”

Some inmates also revealed that convicts get their jail time slashed by months or years after bribing the jail management; a claim authorities deny.

Punjab’s inspector general of prisons Mian Farooq Nazir says the prisoners are assigned work according to their status. “If a graduate arrives at the prison, he will be assigned the job to teach fellows. Similarly, those having religious education are asked to teach the holy book and impart religious knowledge to other inmates.”

According to the IGP, most of the convicted prisoners assist the jail staff since they are found untrained and unskilful. Nazir also insists that the prisoners are asked to do hard labour only for four hours in a day. The officer further claimed that the inmates are given incentives for their work. “If a prisoner works for one month in a jail, his seven-day jail-term is slashed.”

Farooq Nazir said that various skill development programmes were launched in different jails in the province under the jail reforms initiative in the recent past. “First, we need to amend the CRPC to give financial incentives to the inmates for their work. A draft is being prepared to amend the laws regarding rigorous punishment.”

While he admitted the Punjab’s prison industry badly needed investment, training, and skill development plans, he informed that they have launched a new programme to train the convicted prisoners in different fields with the help of TEVTA.

“In some jails, school uniforms are also stitched by the female prisoners. The furniture items are used either in the same jail or sold to other government departments.

“The work force in Sialkot jail had been leased out to a private contractor, who also provides three-month training to the convicts in football stitching.

“The inmates, presently, are being given training in different fields like motor-winding and furniture making. This plan, as a pilot project, has been launched in 15 jails of the province,” he told The Nation.

The Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority and the provincial government are investing in the prison industry for this purpose, he added.

The prison chief also mentioned a government investment of Rs 280 million to build classrooms and infrastructure in jails in order to train the inmates with the help of TEVTA.