Mandela Day and our prisons

Once we used to find heroes for every decade but in the fast changing world, thanks to the digital media, heroes too are made and unmade, celebrated and forgotten, quite quickly. Mandela day passed unnoticed by our media. Since 2009, July 18th has been designated by the UN as Mandela Day, in recognition of Nelson Mandela’s long struggle for non-discrimination, social justice, protection of vulnerable groups including children, conflict resolution and poverty eradication. Mandela was above all a humanitarian who believed in democracy and non-violent means in struggle for one’s ideals. Mandela Day is the flesh-and-blood-testimony to the human potential of one man making difference in people’s lives, one man who spent twenty seven best years of his life incarcerated. Talking of Nelson Mandela may also make us peep behind the high prison walls here, where more than often the victims of our rotten criminal justice system are confined. Since the inmates of these prisons are not visible to many so they are the best/worst example of out of sight, out of mind, both for the general public and also for public policy and resource managers.

Nelson Mandela, a one-time prisoner who won the Noble Peace Prize in 1993, observed, “it is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”. How many of us have ever bothered to think that how prisoners are treated by our system. Like so much else the shabby (read criminal) treatment meted out to prisoners is not due to lack of resources only (as everything else going wrong in the public domain is routinely attributed to this one factor) but due to apathy, neglect and ignorance on prisoners’ rights and disregard to dignity of man. Prisons’ administration is a provincial subject and the prison rules may vary from province to province but the colonial culture and construct for defining prisoners’ rights remains the same which does not recognize a dignified treatment for the prisoners. Pakistan Prison Rules 1978 too are modelled on the ages old colonial prison rules.

The four purposes of punishment as identified in the jurisprudence are retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence and incapacitation. But the existing system of criminal justice and prisons fails to serve any of these purposes except incapacitation perhaps to an extent. Same rules applicable to under trial and convicts is an example of out of proportion retribution, which amounts to advance punishment. Though as far as the language is concerned, the Prison Manual recognizes under trial inmates and the convicts as two distinct categories but the treatment is hardly different. Can the hollow words make for the inaction or insufficient action? We may like to call our prisons as correctional facilities and paint the same on their gates and outside walls but has this term sunk in the prison’s administration too? Juvenile offenders are a glaring example of intersection of vulnerabilities but despite introducing juvenile justice laws, which aim at social reintegration of juveniles, there hardly is a difference between the treatments meted out to the juvenile inmates from those of the hardened ones.

Remissions, which are recognized by law and rules and should be available to the prisoners automatically on meeting the laid down conditions, are often either refused or delayed to such an extent that they become redundant

The UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for Prisoners, which were adopted in 1955 at the United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva, makes it mandatory to have the services of a psychiatrist available to the inmates besides the services of a full time and a residing medical officer and also the treatment of an inmate at the specialized health institute if he requires so. But how many times you have heard about the serious probes of the deaths in custody except for terming them due to natural causes when everyone who had the slightest knowledge of the prisons knows that it takes considerably long to answer a medical emergency in a prison thus leading to death. Similarly, the writer of this article has yet to see a ramp for the disabled prisoners on the entrance of the jails and also on the prison vans. The disabled prisoners are seen hoping into the prison vans by the help of the fellow inmates, which is an indescribably degrading and deplorable sight.

The categorization of classes within the prisons and deciding the eligibility of the inmates to better class has always been on the whims of the prison administration. First of all, it has to be understood that the better class does not bring any luxury (as is commonly believed) rather the facilities like mattress, newspapers and national-channel-only-television, that they are entitled to should be available to all prisoners. It is the colonial mindset, which perceives prisoners as ones living in squalid and sordid conditions only and does not accept any deviation from this prototype.

Remissions, which are recognized by law and rules and should be available to the prisoners automatically on meeting the laid down conditions, are often either refused or delayed to such an extent that they become redundant. For some unknown reason the prison officers are unwilling to allow remissions thus adding to the misery of the prisoners and also to the number of the prisoners in the overcrowded prisons. Our prison staff appears to be characters in the Stanford Prison Experiments. They need to be sensitized on the dignity of man and the human rights. Just taking away one’s liberty is enough of a punishment and compounding it with other insensitive methods is not required than to satisfy some sadist instinct.

Mandela Day, in our context, required a consideration to the condition of our overcrowded prisons (also due to delays in justice system and not only due to increasing crime rate) and its hapless inmates even if that consideration is limited only to raising awareness about the prisoners and their rights. Nelson Mandela Foundation describes the Mandela Day as “No matter how small your action, Mandela Day is about changing the world for the better, just as Nelson Mandela did every day”. It is not asking for much to make the little worlds of the prisoners better by letting them to live in dignity.

The author is a gender and human rights specialist

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