December 7, 2021

Covid-19: The Case for Reducing Prison Populations

Our prisoners are packed like sardines. Over 70,000 individuals holed up in 114 jails across the country.

Pakistani prisons were screaming reforms long before Covid-19. For decades, we’ve kept the weak and vulnerable in a justice system that cares only for those with money and power.

The system is rigged, from the time a complaint is registered to the endless days a prisoner passes in a penitentiary. Palms are greased to avoid jail time or get reduced sentences. Favours are sought from the corridors of power to secure prohibited comforts during incarceration.

Of course, those who cannot afford these deflections are seldom privy to such mercies.

This leaves behind one of the most vulnerable segments of our society to rot in jails, with few reprieves and even fewer avenues of recourse. The sick, the elderly, women and children — we’ve turned our prisons into the aftermath of a medieval war. Except, the battle has just begun.

Soon after Covid-19 was first identified in December in China, human rights activists started sounding alarms on what the pandemic could mean for prisons. Conversations had started as early as January about releasing at-risk prisoners and significantly reducing prison populations to enable the imposition of safety protocols, particularly social distancing.

But social distancing is impossible when our prisons are overflowing. When three inmates share a cell meant for one. And when hundreds of prisoners, visitors, staff, and officials drift in and out of these premises every day. It was only a matter of time before Pakistan reported its first case of the coronavirus from its prisons.

The news broke on March 24, about a month after Iran and China reported the first cases inside their prisons. The prisoner was from Camp Jail, Lahore. He had recently arrived from Italy, by then the most affected country. He was promptly transferred to a hospital and a quarantine facility was established at the premises to handle any future cases. It did not take long.

By April 15, there were nearly 60 cases at the Lahore prison. The rate of infection per 1,000 was nearly 200 times higher inside the prison than it was in the city of Lahore. By April 21, Punjab authorities reported there were nearly 100 cases of Covid-19 prisoners. Mysteriously, the number started decreasing thereon. We, at Justice Project Pakistan, suspected that either testing had slowed down or the figures made public were understated. How, when cases were rising exponentially elsewhere, had prisons managed to so effectively lock the disease out of its fortified walls. They obviously hadn’t.

Punjab has not divulged a single case of a positive prisoner since April 26, but Karachi Central Jail reported hundreds of cases in May. The first prisoner was tested positive on May 11 after complaining of Covid-like symptoms. By May 17, a total of 283 prisoners were confirmed with coronavirus out of the 856 prisoners tested by the authorities. Karachi Jail was becoming the new flashpoint for the virus. Or at least the only known one.

This brings us to testing. In the United States, the Recidiviz Covid-19 Model for Incarceration uses incarceration-specific measures of how the virus would spread in a prison, along with state data on prison populations and community resources to generate a likely estimate of total cases, need for hospitalization, and deaths in the future. This tool was developed to help criminal justice decision-makers understand how prison populations are likely to interact with the public health system as the pandemic spreads.

Based on data from correctional facilities, the model predicted that 99% of the nearly 42,000 people in prisons of the US state of Arizona would get infected. But only 173 inmates or 0.41% of the prison population was tested. “The reality is that a lot of prison systems, including Arizona’s, are not testing nearly enough people,” warned Felicity Rose, director of research and policy for criminal justice reform at FWD.US, an organization working to improve criminal justice systems. “We know that it’s spreading among staff and that staff are bringing it into and out of the facilities. We know there are people who are asymptomatic and are able to pass it along, but we just don’t know how many.”

Back home, asymptomatic prisoners are a cause of great concern for jail authorities. Reports suggest that eight out of every 10 patients in Pakistan between May 1 and 7 were asymptomatic. They only found out they were positive for Covid-19 after being tested. Similarly, in Karachi Central Jail, most of the prisoners who tested positive did not show any symptoms.

Karachi Central Jail now reportedly conducts 300 tests every day. Punjab, on the other hand, has only carried out around 520 tests at Camp Jail with little evidence of increased testing in other districts of the province. Media reports have also attributed the death of a prisoner at Adiala Jail, Rawalpindi, to Covid-19 but there was no official confirmation or acknowledgement by authorities.

This means we can never be sure who is a carrier of the virus and could potentially infect an entire prison population. The only way to maintain some sort of defence against this raging killer is to drastically reduce the number of people incarcerated in the jails of Pakistan, to at least 70% of their original capacity. It is a considerable ask when the prison population is already overcrowded by around 20%.

The good news is that there are already thousands of prisoners who pose little to no threat to society. And Pakistan is already pretty experienced in tracking the movements of suspects as it has done with those accused of terrorism and sectarianism under the Fourth Schedule.

Those with preexisting medical conditions and compromised immunity should be the first ones to be considered. They should either immediately be transferred to health facilities or to the care of their families. Then there are under-trial prisoners, a staggering two-thirds of Pakistan’s total jail population, with many accused of petty crimes. The Supreme Court has already outlined the parameters for considering the release of prisoners with lesser sentences; provinces can use the framework to broaden the scope of application.

The fear that releasing prisoners will result in an exponential rise in crime is a fallacy based on our prejudices. Our prejudiced perception of what and who these prisoners are. Crime rises with unemployment and lawlessness; unless those are dealt with, releasing a handful of the most marginalized people from captivity will not trigger a collapse of any society. It will only give people a chance to live, a chance to escape the death sentence that this pandemic is for prisons.

Ali Haider Habib is the Communications Team Lead at Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit organisation that works on criminal justice system reforms and represents Pakistan’s most vulnerable prisoners through litigation, advocacy, and communications.

Cover image courtesy AFP

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