FeaturedNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 03

The plight of female inmates

In a landmark decision, Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered an early release of female prisoners, who are facing trial or convicted. Under the plan, the government would bear all expenses for the release of women whose remaining sentence is less than three years and they are serving imprisonment for their inability to pay fines.

Under the move, prisoners less than 16 years of age and women, except those sentenced in heinous crimes, like murder, will be freed. The order is part of jail reforms which are in the pipeline under guidelines from the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which has directed the government to release prisoners suffering from a physical or mental illness, under-trial prisoners, who are 55 or older, male under-trial prisoners, who have not been convicted in the past as well as female and juvenile prisoners. The provinces will generate funds through the Baitul Mal and Social Welfare Department to pay fines of prisoners.

According to a report of a committee formed by the prime minister six months ago, more than 500 women and juvenile prisoners are detained in petty offences. Almost 75pc of them are in Punjab jails. According to the report on “Plight of Women in Pakistan’s Prisons,” 134 women have children with them in prison, some as old as 9 and 10, despite the legal limit of 5 years. The report finds that prison laws do not meet international standards and that officials often ignore laws meant to protect women prisoners. Of the 1,121 women in prison as of mid-2020, 66pc had not been convicted of any offence and were detained while awaiting conclusion of their trial. More than 300 women were detained in facilities outside the districts where they lived, making family visits nearly impossible. The prisoners included 46 women over the age of 60 and 10 girls under the age of 18. Only 24 female health workers are available to provide full-time care to women and girls in prisons across the country.

The report found that prison staff routinely failed to observe appropriate protections against the spread of the coronavirus. Prison staff failed to put social distancing measures in place or require prisoners and staff to wear masks. It urged comprehensive medical screening for all entering prisoners. Children who accompany their mothers in prison face additional risks. At least 195 children were housed in prisons as of 2020. A critical lack of funding in the prison healthcare system has meant that mothers whose children are with them in prison often lack essential health care, leaving both women and children at risk of contracting infections. One prisoner reported that her child, who had a developmental disability, was not offered any support services or medical care despite the prisoner’s repeated requests during her six years of incarceration.

The committee recommended reducing the proportion of prisoners held in pretrial detention, allowing women to be detained close to their homes to facilitate family visits, and reducing the number of women and girls in prison by developing alternative sentencing options and non-custodial measures for women and girls. It also proposed that individual cases should be reviewed to identify possible human rights violations and humanitarian needs, and recommended more training of prison staff, resources, and policies to address the mental health needs of women in prison, and development of post-release programs to help women and girls reintegrate into the community.

The report includes a detailed analysis of the extent to which Pakistan’s national and provincial laws comply with the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the “Bangkok Rules”). It found important gaps requiring reform in the provincial and national legislative framework. Only Sindh has enacted prison rules that comply with international standards. Under the Bangkok Rules, non-custodial alternatives to custody should be preferred where possible if someone facing imprisonment is pregnant or has sole child-caring responsibilities. Children accompanying their mothers must receive suitable health care, at least equivalent to that available in the community. The decision as to whether a child is to accompany their mother in prison or be separated must be based on individual assessments and the best interests of the child. Children in prison with their mother should never be treated as prisoners, and their environment must be as close as possible to that of a child outside prison.

According to a recent report by a commission set up by the Islamabad High Court, prisoners are subject to daily humiliation and deprivations. More than 5,000 out of a total of 73,661 prisoners are afflicted with some form of disease: 2,100 suffered from physical ailments, while nearly 2,400 were infected with contagious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis. Over 600 prisoners suffer from psychological disorders. Almost 50pc of medical jail staff posts were vacant. In a November 2019 report, the Federal Ombudsman had informed the Supreme Court that a total of 77,275 inmates, including 1,204 women, were housed in 114 prisons in the four provinces against a sanctioned capacity of 57,742.

It is high time the government acted upon the recommendations of the committee to reform prisons and made Pakistan a civilised society which respects the dignity of people, even those serving sentences for heinous crimes. It will also improve the image of the country, which is often criticized for its poor record of human rights.