The month of Ramazan teaches us to divert our empathy and care to the most underprivileged and unfortunate members of our society. That includes the segment of our country which does not make the most sympathetic of victims but requires our attention the most. Pakistan’s prisoners are living in appalling conditions today, and as the number of prisoners increases with the years, the situation does not look to be getting any better.

This important but neglected issue was addressed at an iftar dinner organised at the District Jail Malir on Monday. The event organised by Justice Helpline was attended by a large number of prisoners, police officials, members of civil society and media personnel. The people in attendance, who are most affected by the abysmal condition of our prison system, gave a number of recommendations, which if adopted, would not just massively improve our jails and institutions but could lead to betterment of our criminal justice system as a whole.

One of the principal problems that the inmates and police officials identified was prison crowding. According to UN research, the prison population has increased without a proportionate increase in staff and buildings. According to the HRCP, as of November 2017, there were 82,591 prisoners against a capacity of 45,210. Thus, as the number of prisoners increase, many of whom have not even been convicted yet, jails become over-crowded, leading to a marked fall in living conditions for the prisoners. Overcrowding of jails has become the mother of all other problems for prisoners; it leads to a chronic shortage of edible food and potable water and a severe lack of hygiene, especially in lavatories and kitchens. Overcrowding facilitates the easy spread of disease, with Hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and TB being rampant in jails across the country. More prisoners also mean a shortage of medical services, including medicines and care for mentally challenged patients.

Such living conditions are criminal, more so when considering our weak criminal justice system which is discriminatory towards the lower classes, and the fact that a large number of prisoners have not yet received a conviction or cannot pay for bail. If those inmates were not criminals before, they would certainly be inclined to become them after suffering such harsh rights-violating conditions. The government is urged to heed to the suggestions put forward of increasing the number of prisons and reforming jails to become rehabilitation centres with enough means to equip prisoners with basic educational and vocational skills.