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March 26, 2020

Prisoners in a pandemic

Editorial

 
March 26, 2020

The finding that a prisoner at Camp Jail Lahore has tested positive for the coronavirus raises many fears. This prisoner had reached the country from Italy in February, before being arrested on drug charges and sent to jail in March. After complaining of high fever, he tested positive for the virus on March 21, and has been shifted to hospital. The problem is that Pakistan’s 40 functional jails are badly overcrowded, housing almost 90,000 prisoners in cramped, crowded and often extremely unhygienic conditions. These are the ideal circumstances for the spread of corona. Similar problems have been reported from the US, where prison inmates have been found positive for Covid-19 and authorities are determining how to manage the situation. In Pakistan, there is an even greater fear that the virus could spill over from the prison population and give rise to even more cases in the country. The safety of the prisoners too of course has to be considered. On Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court ordered the conditional release of 400 more prisoners held at Adiala Jail for minor crimes; 283 prisoners have already been freed from the jail under the IHC’s directives issued a few days ago. The IHC converted the appeals of 400 under-trial prisoners into bail petitions and issued notices that they be freed.

IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah had previously expressed the fear that the coronavirus could rampage through the packed prisons and create an epicentre presenting an enormous danger not only to those held in jail, the staff working there, lawyers visiting their clients but also the population outside jail bars. While the deputy commissioner for Islamabad has assured the court that no Adiala Jail prisoner has been infected, Justice Minallah pointed out that the coronavirus outbreak had worsened in China rapidly after it spread amongst prisoners. We also do not know how many prisoners have been tested at jails across the country. It is also unfortunate that our system of justice allows those held for the most petty offences to be immediately placed behind bars. In many cases, some await trial for months or even years.

The IHC decision is a wise one. We must also put into action a plan to assess the health status of those at other jails in the country. The Adiala Jail till recent releases held 5,001 prisoners against a capacity of 2,174. Out of these, 1,362 were under trial prisoners. This is a criminal situation in itself. These intolerable living conditions should not be acceptable in any circumstances. The outbreak of the virus obviously adds to the risks and it is essential that the matter is taken up at all levels to avoid an epidemic within the prison population across the country.