The safety of prisons

April 5, 2020

Despite a rising corona count, the Supreme Court has halted prisoner release. Prison authorities say measures taken to improve prison conditions will help. The question is: how much?

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has halted the release of hundreds of prisoners from the chronically overcrowded jails across the country. There is even greater fear meanwhile of a rapid spread of coronavirus among both the vulnerable inmates and prison staff.

Prison authorities claim that everything is under control and appropriate measures have been taken to safeguard the inmates from infection, ground realities suggest otherwise. Amidst the coronavirus panic, prison authorities, well aware that the facilities are challenged in terms of hygiene, corruption and lack of health facilities for prisoners, have approached higher authorities and courts with an assurance of appropriate measures. They know that if coronavirus starts spreading in prisons, it could wreak havoc.

In disposing of the matter, the Lahore High Court had expressed the fear that the disease could take a heavy toll making the prisons an epicenter for the spread of the pandemic and putting the lives of not only prisoners but also staff, visiting lawyers and judges at risk.

While overriding the order, the SC remarked that the high court had not taken into account the complainants’ view while ordering the release of the prisoners. “Coronavirus is a grave threat but the decision in this connection has been taken in haste. So, mere fear won’t work,” Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed remarked.

The legal fraternity seems divided on this issue. While some hailed the Lahore High Court order for release of the inmates on compassionate grounds, others have admired the Supreme Court’s decision to override it.

Ahmed Awais, a former secretary general of the Supreme Court Bar Association, says the Supreme Court has rightly pointed out that under Article 199 of the Constitution, the high courts are barred from suo motu hearings. Under Article 184-(3) of the Constitution, only the Supreme Court can takes suo motu notice of a matter. “We should keep in mind that coronavirus has catastrophic effects for everyone. The lethal virus also poses great threat to the lives of the prisoners who, under Article 9 of the Constitution, have the right to life”, he adds.

He says the Supreme Court should not have stopped there. To ensure protection of lives of the prisoners, the SC should have made the jail authorities provide details of the prisons to the court so that modalities in this regard could be be laid out in time, Awais says.

Naheed Khan, a social activist and an advocate of the Lahore High Court, says the SC has taken the right decision. “We are highlighting one aspect of this issue and entirely ignoring the other which is more important”, she asserts. “Why do we overlook the agony and ordeal the aggrieved parties are going through in the cases where Lahore High Court granted relief to prisoners by allowing them to be set free?” she asks.

She says the LHC ruling had hurt the families who had been running from pillar to post to get justice from the courts. “I see it [the LHC order] as totally unjust”, she says. She says many inmates serving less than seven-year sentence in jails are there on account of heinous crimes, including peddling of narcotics and money laundering. Granting them bails against surety bonds and personal surety, she says, would be tantamount to a blanket cover.

Shahid Beg, the inspector general of Punjab Prisons, says there’s no need to worry about a coronavirus infection as fool-proof arrangements have been made in all 46 jails of the province. “It’s because of the rapid response by jail authorities that since the outbreak of the virus in Pakistan”, he says, “there has been only one case reported from a jail so far”.

The prisoner, he says, had arrived in the country from Italy in February, before being nabbed on drug charges and sent to Camp Jail, Lahore, in March. Later, he was shifted to a hospital for treatment, says Beg. He adds that after the development, five under-trial detainees and a police official who had been on duty on the premises were also tested for coronavirus.

Beg describes the measures taken to ward off an epidemic: Besides provision of infrared thermometers for screening of the prisoners, surgical masks, soap, sanitisers and necessary medicines have been provided to prisoners and the jail staff. Additionally, lists of the symptoms and precautions have been put up at the interview sheds and admin blocks of all jails and medical officers and paramedical staff are working on an awareness campaign.

The IG says the deputy inspectors general are also paying surprise visits to prisons across Punjab and a separate cell has been set up in every jail for patients.

All inmates are being shifted to other prisons of the province to convert the Camp Jail, Lahore, into a hundred-bed hospital, he says.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

The legal fraternity seems divided over the issue. While some have hailed Lahore High Court’s decision regarding release of the inmates from prisons on compassionate grounds, others have admired the Supreme Court’s decision to override it.

The safety of prisons