According to a report prepared by the Federal Ombudsman in November 2020, there are 79,603 more inmates in 116 jails across the country’s four provinces, than the sanctioned capacity of 64,099. Overpopulation paired with a lack of funds for medical facilities in prisons renders them a petri dish for infectious diseases.
On 26 February 2020, the Government of Pakistan confirmed the first two positive cases of COVID-19; since then, the country has experienced three different waves of the virus. As of June 2021, the virus has claimed 21,828 lives. The contagious nature of the virus is especially harmful to prisons brimming to the seam with prisoners who generally suffer from a lack of proper nutrition. In January 2020, a judicial inquiry commission headed by the Islamabad High Court found that 2,400 prisoners in Pakistan suffer from chronic diseases ranging from HIV to tuberculosis.
The Pakistan Prison Rules do not provide an adequate legal infrastructure to combat a viral pandemic outbreak. Rule 800 highlights the protocol for admission of new prisoners in situations where an epidemic disease is prevalent. Moreover, Rule 987 states that a medical officer must always be present in prison during an epidemic outbreak among prisoners. However, due to a lack of funds, the number of medical officers in prisons is staggeringly low. There are only 42 medical officers in Punjab for 45,699 prisoners, and 9 medical officers for 2,070 prisoners in Balochistan. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that the hospitals situated in prisons have a limited number of beds and medical equipment to combat disease.
To compensate for the loopholes in these Rules, the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (NIH) issued a comprehensive set of guidelines on 4 December 2020, titled, “Health and Safety Measures for Pakistani Prisons and Prisoners with Reference to Covid-19”. These guidelines reflected the protocols issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) to uphold the well-being of the prison population.
International human rights instruments place obligations on Pakistan to ensure the mental and physical health of inmates. Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) enshrines the right to an adequate living and well-being standard. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Pakistan has ratified, states that all individuals deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect and humanity – this indicates that prisoners should enjoy same health care facilities as the public. The same is echoed in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (more commonly known as “Nelson Mandela Rules”). These rules highlight the guidelines for the standard of healthcare in prisons, which is a state responsibility. Although non-binding, the UN referenced these rules in human rights proceedings as the benchmark of standard for the treatment of prisoners globally.
In March 2020, the national tally for coronavirus cases in Pakistan reached 100. To counter the looming threat in prisons, the Chief Justice Sindh High Court (SHC) ordered provincial authorities to conduct screening of prison inmates and staff. Mahmood Khan, the Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), announced special relief for inmates across the province. The prisoners were given a 60-day remission in their sentences to avoid overcrowding in prisons. The Inspector-General of Sindh Prisons, exercising his powers under the Pakistan Prison Rules, also announced a remission of 60 days for convicted prisoners. However, the remission award did not apply to those convicted for terrorism, anti-state activities, espionage, honor killing, and those convicted under the Foreigners Act, 1946. Moreover, the Punjab government set up special coronavirus centers in each prison, and prison personnel also ensured an adequate supply of hygiene items such as soaps and masks to the inmates. In each prison, four temperature guns were used to monitor temperature, and the medical staff also regularly examined prison officers.
Despite these measures, on 25 March 2020, Amnesty International reported that an inmate in Lahore Camp Jail had tested positive. The inmate had been arrested in Italy, which was struggling to stay afloat amidst a deadly outbreak of the virus. The infected inmate was kept in different barracks that hosted approximately 3,500 other inmates as well. A report submitted by the Federal Ombudsman in January 2020 unveiled that a total of 480 prisoners were infected across the four provinces (291 in Sindh, 126 in KP, 80 in Balochistan, and 3 in Punjab). A media report in December 2020 also disclosed that coronavirus cases in Sindh prisons had grown from 31 to 112 in ten days. Sindh approximately holds 18,000 prisoners in 22 prisons across the province. 12,790 of these prisoners were tested, out of which 1,638 tested positive. The Provincial Prisons IG Qazi Nazir Ahmed ordered a mandatory 14-day quarantine for new prisoners in addition to social distancing among inmates. Those who had been infected were kept in separate barracks, and their diet was changed in accordance with the medical practitioner’s advice.
To reduce overpopulation, the prison administration granted bail to inmates who were serving sentences for petty crimes, and prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentences were released six months prior to the completion of their sentences. On 1 April 2020, the Supreme Court directed the Inspectors General of Prisons across the country to prepare reports regarding the prison population to screen prisoners eligible for release. Moreover, approximately 367 foreign prisoners from Sindh prisons were released. The prison administration also got in touch with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to enable 120 Indian prisoners to have counsel access to facilitate their repatriation on a timely basis. Out of 46,000 prisoners in prisons across Punjab, 20,000 were provided bail as Jail superintendents were asked to approve bail of prisoners who were given a sentence of seven years or less. Bail requests were filed for elderly criminals above 60 years of age, and also those sentenced for petty crimes. The bail decision for inmates given a sentence between seven and twenty-five years was made on a case-to-case basis. However, a strict lockdown was imposed across the country from April to June 2020, followed by court holidays that restricted bail hearings. The prison population rose by 8.7% during this period. Family visits for inmates were suspended in the wake of increasing cases in the country. The visits were resumed following a fall in the number of cases countrywide. The jail authorities devised a plan for family meetings by dividing inmates by categories of their crimes. These meetings were restricted to blood relations only, and the inmates were prohibited from meeting children and the elderly.
The pandemic quickly spread through prisons in Pakistan due to overpopulation and poor hygiene. A study conducted by the Cursor of Development and Education (CODE), a Pakistani NGO, highlighted the overuse of arrest and detention by police as one of the primary reasons for overcrowding in prisons. Moreover, a large portion of inmates is held for months in pre-trial detention. The 7th Report of Federal Ombudsman submitted to the Supreme Court stated that approximately 53,385 inmates out of a total of 79,603 are awaiting trial in prisons across Pakistan. This constitutes 67% of inmates, which significantly contributes to overpopulation. It is crucial for the police to play an active role during proceedings to reduce overpopulation in prisons. Police personnel must only make an arrest where sufficient evidence exists to establish the guilt of the accused. Moreover, the in-charge of the police station must exercise their powers under Section 496 of the Criminal Procedure, which highlights cases where bail may be granted in case of bailable offenses. In such offenses, bail is deemed a right and not a favor.
The situation has improved after vaccines were made available in the country. The vaccination process started on 6 April 2021 across prisons in Sindh, and priority was given to elderly prisoners. Although temporary policies were enacted to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons across the country, the justice system must implement long-term policies to reduce overpopulation in prisons that inevitably contributes to disease. In doing so, Pakistan must adhere to international legal obligations that establish standards for healthcare in prisons. The right to adequate healthcare has been entrenched in various international human rights conventions and is echoed in domestic laws as well. These provisions must be aggressively pursued and implemented to ensure the rule of law within the country.
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 7th Report of Federal Ombudsman submitted to the Supreme Court on jail reforms, published in September 2020
 CrPC 496: “When any person other than a person accused of a non-bailable offence is arrested or detained without warrant by an officer in-charge of a police-station, or appears or is brought before a Court, and is prepared at any time while in the custody of such officer or at any stage of the proceedings before such Court to give bail, such person shall be released on bail”.
 “Pakistan Province First to Launch Jail Vaccine Drive.” Arab News, 9 Apr. 2021, www.arabnews.com/node/1839901/world.