An integral part of criminal justice system, prisons play an essential role in crime control. The success of any prison system depends on its incarceration rate, recidivism rate and the philosophy it adheres to. Norway, head and shoulders above rest of the world, is driven by restorative justice. Loss of liberty –that alone is considered the greatest punishment. Prison cells there are segregated; with proper showers, beddings, sanitation, televisions and computers. Prisoners are made to share kitchen and other facilities within the prison to prepare them for a normal life once they get out. For the same reason, its incarceration rate is merely 75 per 100,000 people and has lowest recidivism rate in the world at 20%. The prisons in Norway aim to repair and rehabilitate prisoners instead of punishing them, unlike in Pakistan where prisons are crime producing factories. In Pakistan, habitual criminals invariably turn into professionals after they spend time in prisons.

Our prison system is a legacy of colonial era. It was, in part, designed as punitive instrument to neutralise threat to the Crown. The world has come to realise the failure of that model. Failure is only compounded in Pakistan’s justice system where twin vices of backlogs and delays in our court processes have resulted in about 68% of total prison population as under-trial prisoners.  If the stated objective of prisons is to deter people from committing offences in future; then having a large number of under-trial prisoners, with their guilt yet to be judicially determined, defeats the very purpose of deterrence. In effect, prisoners are not just deprived of liberty but are also stigmatised during the pendency of their trial.  Recognising this, the National Judicial Policy had outlined; “criminal cases punishable with imprisonment from 7 years and above including death cases shall be decided within a period of 1 year.” No follow up.

The issue that directly flows from large number of under-trial prisoners is overcrowding of prisons in the country. In about 102 prisons across the country, with capacity of 45,472 prisoners, we have over 80,741 prisoners camped in them (most of them are not convicts).

Health and Medical Care is the most neglected subject in our prisons. Recently a study carried on HIV management in prisons has revealed that HIV epidemic has “transitioned from low prevalence to a concentrated one” with total number of people living with HIV at alarming 87,000 prisoners – most prevalent in intravenous drug users (38.4%). It has an impact not just in prisons alone. In Pakistan, about 550 prisoners are released daily. About 110 prisoners are released daily with either HCV, HBV, TB, or HIV/AIDS. These prisoners are released without complete medical treatment and without any health education. There is no follow up treatment outside the prisons either, as they interact with people, making their partners most vulnerable.

The Prison Act, 1894 and the Pakistan Prison Rules, 1978 (Jail Manual) provide for the classification of prisoners. Classification of prisoners is an important aspect as it allows the state to house different prisoners in accordance with the nature of offence and segregate different kinds of prisoners. For instance, there should be separate prisons for women and juveniles – called borstal institutions. But there is an acute shortage of special prisons for women and bolster institutions –only four women prisons and two borstal institutions across the country.

The treatment afforded to prisoners in Pakistan falls well short of the prescribed requirements of Standard Minimum Rules of the UN and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In fact, it violates some of the provisions contained therein. There is abundant discrimination in prisons on the basis of status, ample evidence of torture and inhumane treatment and little regard to inviolability of dignity of prisoners. A detained person is never informed about his rights including his right to consult legal counsel.

Evidently there is a lot of room for improvement. And it is not entirely due to the lack of legislative instruments but because of their non-implementation. Also, the state needs to upgrade the present facilities, train the prison staff and create more facilities for the prisoners. In addition, the whole philosophy of our prison system needs to be reviewed. According to criminologist Bob Cameron; prisons should have five goals: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, restoration, and rehabilitation. Eager on the first three – we have completely overlooked restoration and rehabilitation.

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” Wrote Nelson Mandela in his Long Walk to Freedom. By that yardstick – we don’t fare well do we?