The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf draws a huge chunk of its support from the country’s youth, a relationship the party capitalised on throughout its election campaign. But while Chapter 6 of its manifesto vows to ‘unleash the potential’ of Pakistan’s youth, one problem it fails to address is that of juvenile offenders serving sentences in prisons across the country. As the government tries to depart from the instability and uncertainty of its early days, this issue might never receive the attention its gravity merits.

The inadequate and careless treatment of juveniles in prison should sound alarm bells for the government. After all, such convicts form a sizeable portion of the ‘youth’ that has been much talked about in the political arena.

While prisons across the country fail to fulfil their rehabilitative role in general, the principal victims of this failure are juvenile delinquents— they are more impressionable than adult offenders and thus, have a higher chance of re-entering and contributing to society as responsible citizens.

In addition, juveniles often spend a short time in prison and in most cases, upon re-entry into society, have the rest of their lives before them. The long-term costs of juvenile second time offenders re-entering society are detrimental. Likewise, the benefits that could be gained through proper rehabilitation and re-entry are lucrative.

Central to this rehabilitative process is the separation of juveniles from adult convicts. The legislation that establishes how such rehabilitation may take place already exists. The Pakistan Prisons Rules of 1978 classify juveniles as special prisoners and refer to the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance (2000) and the subsequent Juvenile Justice System Rules (2002), as guidebooks for the exclusive treatment of juveniles in prison. The Juvenile Justice System Ordinance has since been repealed in favour of the Juvenile Justice System Act (2018).

These ordinances were an attempt to conform to international standards of protecting juveniles, standards underscored in the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child. ‘Special protection’, ‘care’ and ‘guidance’ are the some of the most resonant terms with which the declaration regards the treatment of children.

Similar themes dominate international legislation that deals specifically with juveniles in prison. Adopted by General Assembly Resolution 45/113, the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty are a case in point. The Rules stress on the importance of setting up ‘open detention facilities’, with minimal security measures, for juveniles. The separation of adults and juveniles is driven home as one of the most important aspects of the rehabilitative process.

The level of meticulous care expected from prison administrations is evident from Article 27, which calls for a ‘psychological and social’ evaluation of each juvenile admitted into a detention facility. The evaluation report is then to be used for an ‘individualised treatment plan’, tailored exclusively to suit the needs of each juvenile. Article 65 even suggests the prohibition of carrying and using weapons for personnel employed in juvenile detention facilities.

In Pakistan, the legislation is no different. The Sindh Juvenile Justice Rules, for example, although not with the same detail or precision, also stress on improving the ‘mental calibre’ of detained juveniles. The Rules, much like similar international law and treatise, aim to provide ‘careful individual attention’ to juveniles in an attempt to develop their ‘conduct, moral attitude and discipline’.

All these measures, however, prove impossible to carry out in prisons where juveniles are held alongside adults (at times in the same cells). Fulfilling the obligations of these local and international laws, therefore, is an entirely different matter. While the Juvenile Justice System Act begins with a promise of expedient justice and social reintegration of juveniles, what actually takes place in prison facilities is neither expedient nor integrative. While demarcating separate wards for juveniles may be presented as an adequate solution, it fails to live up to the standards of local and global legislation.

The scarcity of juvenile prisons means most juveniles are detained in prisons meant for adults. As a result, they face the same consequences as the prison population at large, including harsh disciplinary measures and a lack of educational and vocational training. In addition to being detained near, at times alongside, adults, juveniles are also affected by the gross overcrowding in the country’s prisons. A report, issued as early as last year, compiled by NACTA, ICRC and Cursor Development and Education Pakistan, concluded that Pakistan’s prisons held 57 percent more inmates than the authorised limit. This results in increased juvenile-adult interaction in prisons.

In addition, the jail staff in most mature prisons is not trained well enough to handle juveniles let alone overlook their rehabilitation. Where juveniles may require guidance and inspiration, they are left to be influenced by adult offenders or to be abused and, at times, physically assaulted by the jail staff.

In keeping with this, the Human Rights Watch has earmarked the lack of respect for human rights in Pakistani prisons as a key problem juveniles suffer from. Sexual abuse is also a major concern regarding our local penal system. The 1999 uprising of children from Sahiwal Central Prison’s juvenile ward shed light on just one example of juveniles being abused in prison. The problem of unsuitable personnel handling juveniles in prison can only be resolved with the setting up of more juvenile-exclusive detention facilities.

The negligence that clouds the issue is even more startling. A lack of information has prevented policy proposals from taking up the issue. While the Punjab Prisons website provides information on the number of juvenile inmates in regular prisons, it fails to mention the quantity of juvenile prisons in the province. A Lahore High Court judgement in 2004, that struck down the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance as unnecessary and encouraged the treatment of juveniles as adults shows just how pervading this negligence is.

As the new government looks to make its mark, it should not overlook the invaluable wealth of physical and intellectual assets languishing in Pakistan’s prisons. The legislation that may help capitalise on this wealth is already in place. The need of our time is the implementation of that legislation and an end to the negligence with which we have been treating young people in our prisons. If the government truly wants to become the voice of the country’s youth, it must extend a helping hand to the young Pakistanis who need it most.


The author is an A-Level Student at Aitchison College, Lahore.