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Prison Reform in Pakistan: What is needed and why?

Guest post by Dr Qadeer Alam, Assistant Inspector General of Prisons, Punjab, Pakistan on advocating for prison standards and an overhaul of prison governance in Pakistan.


Qadeer Alam
Assistant Inspector General of Prisons, Punjab, Pakistan


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4 Minutes
Dr Qadeer Alam
Dr Qadeer Alam, Assistant Inspector General of Prisons, Punjab, Pakistan

Most jails in Pakistan are relics from the colonial age and are now extremely overcrowded, with three to five people sharing a cell built for one. In central prisons, all prisoners including those awaiting trial, those sentenced to term and those sentenced to death – men, women and juveniles – are all confined in one prison but are segregated within that. Under the Prisons Act 1894, section 30, death row prisoners are obliged to be held separately from the day they are first sentenced by a trial court. Death row prisoners are confined in cells that are separated from the general prison population by several locked gates. Their cells are around nine by twelve feet, with a toilet in the corner and an iron-barred door. Death row prisoners are under heavier surveillance and have their outdoor movements restricted. Anyone wishing to visit a death row prisoner also has to enter the confinement block and is subject to more rigorous checks and searches than visitors to the general population. 

Many bodies within Pakistan, including the Federal Shariat Court, the National Judicial Committee and the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan have recommended that prisoners should not be treated as death row prisoners until a death sentence has been confirmed by the High Courts. The government of Punjab therefore amended the Pakistan Prison Rules 1978, Rule 330 in line with this. However, in practice this principle is rarely implemented due to prison administrators’ safety concerns and the failure to amend the primary legislation, the Prisons Act 1894.

Pakistan inherited an outdated prison system from the British colonial regime in India and it has not changed much in over 200 years. Even today, the Prisons Act 1894 and the Prisoners Act 1900 are the main laws which govern prisons and prisoners in Pakistan! Furthermore, the Prisons Act 1894 is based on recommendations of the 1838 Prison Discipline Committee, and further committees from the 1800s, which stated that “the severe privation, the really hard work, the solitude…silence and separation which we recommend, by rendering the Gaol a place of dread, and divesting it of all pleasurable recollections…would do much good”.

In 1919, the British Government in India constituted a committee led by Sir Alexander Cardew, in order to explore new theories of crime and punishment and propose reforms. The committee made an exhaustive tour of England, Scotland, the USA, the Philippines, Hong Kong and the Andaman Islands and made an extensive study of the prison systems there. The result was a lengthy report with 584 recommendations on all aspects of prison administration. For the first time in British-Indian history, the recommendation was that rehabilitation ought to be the goal. They also recommended that evolving theories of punishment be considered on an ongoing basis. The committee stated that the 1838 report had had a negative influence on prison governance that still persisted in 1919 and that it “has failed so far to regard the prisoners as an individual and has conceived of him rather as a unit in the jail administrative machinery”.

Unfortunately, the recommendations in the Cardew report were never implemented due to the increased independence movement in India and the outbreak of the Second World War. Therefore, no significant overhaul of the prison system has taken place in Pakistan since the Prisons Act of 1894. The observations of the Cardew Committee remain equally relevant and valid in Pakistan today. Due to the punitive nature of the prevalent legal framework and traditions based on institutional memory, the prisons administration in Pakistan attributes great importance to ‘silence’ and ‘discipline’ among prisoners, instead of rehabilitation.

George Eden, Governor of India in 1838, Wikimedia Commons
George Eden, Governor of India in 1838, Wikimedia Commons

There is an urgent need to bring the existing legal framework into conformity with United Nations guidelines on the treatment of prisoners, international best practices, judgments of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, recommendations of Pakistan’s National Judicial Policies and reports of different commissions constituted for prison reform. Any new proposed laws should cater to emerging needs such as prisoner management on the basis of need and risk assessments, training of prison staff, independent monitoring and oversight of prisons, and special safeguards for the treatment of foreign prisoners, women, the mentally ill and minors.

The Pakistan Prison Rules 1978 confer many powers on the prisons authorities and impose important responsibilities on the Jail Superintendent and their assistants. It is therefore essential that all possible steps are taken to ensure that these officials are of good education, integrity and professionalism.

In terms of provisions specific to death row prisoners, both the Provincial and the Federal Government in Pakistan need to implement the recommendations of the Supreme Court on the treatment of mentally ill prisoners - especially those facing the death penalty - as laid out in the Safia Bano case. The prisons authorities also need to revisit the security restrictions for the confinement of death row prisoners and allow them to participate in vocational training and other programmes. The Supreme Court and High Courts need to decide appeals of prisoners facing the death penalty in a reasonable period of time in order for prisoners to be released from death row sooner and into the general prison population.

In order to bring about effective change, a modern committee ought to be constituted to look comprehensively at the issues in the Pakistani justice system today and come up with their own recommendations which fit the needs of Pakistan’s prisons and prisoners in the twenty-first century. Prison staff need capacity building training in line with human rights standards of prison administration in order to learn new models of behaviour and undo institutional memory based on outdated approaches. In this way, modern human rights standards have a chance of being adopted, in line with current concerns and not based on outmoded colonial models of punishment and detention.

Dr Qadeer Alam is the Assistant Inspector General of Prisons in Punjab, Pakistan. He completed his doctorate under William Schabas and Nadia Bernaz at Middlesex University. He has worked as a Corrections Mentor in the UN Mission to Liberia from 2009-2011 and as Superintendent Prisons Governor in different jails across Punjab.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Q. Alam. (2022) Prison Reform in Pakistan: What is needed and why?. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/centre-criminology-blog/blog-post/2022/09/prison-reform-pakistan-what-needed-and-why. Accessed on: 27/05/2024