Pakistan ranks as one of the top countries with a high prison population. Our jails are 30% overcrowded, which makes them a flashpoint for the spread of the coronavirus, said Pakistan Justice Project Executive Director Sara Belal.
There are currently between 77,000 and 78,000 prisoners in jails across the country. Meanwhile, our prisons have been built to accommodate only half that number, she said on SAMAA TV’s programme Naya Din on Thursday.
Belal said there are thousands of officers and employees working in these jails everyday. “Even if one person in the jails contracts the virus, it can result in a catastrophe,” she said, adding that the disease can also spread to communities built near the prisons.
Recently, the Islamabad High Court passed orders to release low-risk prisoners from jails. Belal believes that the foremost action that should be taken by the government is to categorise prisoners.
“Firstly, as the aged are the most vulnerable to the virus, they should be released on priority,” she said. Then, there are 2,100 prisoners who have history of diseases such as HIV, AIDS, hepatitis and tuberculosis.
“Since COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, it’s important to shift these people away from the rest of the prisoners as they have a greater chance of getting infected,” the executive director advised.
She said that 66% of people behind bars are under-trail and have not been convicted yet. They should be immediately granted bail. “At least 500 people are brought into Punjab’s prisons everyday, which means that by the end of the week the number of prisoners increases by 10,000,” Belal said.
She suggested that the government adopt a ‘slowing the churn’ mechanism. This means that people committing petty crimes should not be arrested. The concept is being practiced across the globe.
“Prison officials should make contingency plans with the health department,” Belal said. “Decisions should be made regarding the screening, isolation and treatment of prisoners in case anyone gets infected.”
Sindh has already released its older prisoners and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has taken action on it as well, she said.
Belal emphasised that these measures are being taken across the world. “India has formed provincial COVID-19 task forces and Iran has released more than 70,000 prisoners,” she said.
Pakistan should also take apt measures immediately, otherwise the virus can spread like wildfire across prisons, Belal added.