Jailbreak Saga Continues

Wed Jul 10 2024
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Dr. Syed Kaleem Imam

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At an international police chiefs’ conference, each chief shared a meticulously crafted plan on how to respond to a crisis. When it was the Pakistani police chief’s turn to contribute, he merely shrugged and said: “I won’t do anything. The moment a major incident occurs, I’ll be suspended and replaced by a new chief. He will decide how to handle the situation.”

This is exactly how the official response to the recent jailbreak in Poonch, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, has played out. The head of the facility was suspended after 19 inmates escaped. One would assume that he must have had some merit to have been given the position in the first place, and if not, perhaps those responsible for his appointment should have been held accountable. But we digress.

Dramatic jailbreaks seem to occur with a darkly comedic frequency in Pakistan. Militant-led assaults on prison facilities, like the Bannu (2012) and Dera Ismail Khan (2013) jailbreaks, have previously seen hundreds escape with the help of weapons and explosives. Within that same timeframe, the authorities also thwarted an attempt to break into Adyala Jail (2012). The 2024 Rawalakot uprising, which saw inmates overpower guards and negotiate for their freedom, is, therefore, just the latest in a long series of such incidents.

Jailbreak Saga Continues

Jailbreaks have also led to tragedy: a chaotic police raid to free ten judges held hostage by prisoners at the Sialkot district jail in July 2003 ended with three civil judges and five prisoners dead and another two judges critically wounded. Armed prisoners, serving time for kidnapping and robbery, had seized the judges during a routine inspection, demanding their freedom in a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood heist gone wrong. The botched rescue operation only served to acme the glaring dangers within Pakistan’s prison system.

Earlier, in March 1986, around 50 gunmen stormed Sukkur’s central jail, freeing 35 death-row inmates during a chaotic assault. They overpowered the wardens, cut electric wires and scaled walls to liberate prisoners condemned for murder and major robberies. Amid the mayhem, the wardens shot a fleeing prisoner, and a retired jail official was fatally shot after wounding several gunmen. Several wardens, including the superintendent, were critically injured. In a rare display of efficiency, five prisoners who refused to escape, perhaps hoping for a reward, were promptly hanged instead.

Even routine tasks have been used as escape opportunities. A prime example is Rashid Rauf, a suspected militant linked to the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot, who dramatically escaped in 2007 while being escorted in Islamabad. Corruption is a popular means for facilitating escapes, as illustrated by the 2003 Hyderabad Central Prison break, which was enabled by bribed officials. Ransom or political deals also come into play, with prisoners mysteriously obtaining ‘temporary’ releases, only to vanish into thin air.

Our prison system is perhaps the most dilapidated among the country’s many decaying institutions. Its 116 so-called functioning prisons, originally designed for 55,550 inmates, now cram in 83,701 souls, with 55,907 still under trial. That’s roughly 51% over capacity, with about 67% of inmates languishing without a conviction. It’s a marvel of inefficiency, showcasing our commitment to overcrowding and prolonged judicial indecision.

Unlike the rest of the world, where prisons fall under law and justice ministries, here they are operated by the executive branch, under the home department. Until recently, anyone could helm the mess, but in a rare stroke of sanity, officers are now appointed from the prison cadre only. It’s as if we suddenly realized that some semblance of expertise might be useful in running a prison

The prison system is a relic of the colonial era. It is governed by the outdated Pakistan Prisons Act of 1894 and the equally obsolete Management of Prisoners Act of 1900, along with the Bombay Jail Manual of 1908. Even though the Pakistan Prisons Rules were updated in 1978 and Sindh introduced the Prisons and Correction Service Act in 2019, the system continues to struggle with severe overcrowding, substandard infrastructure, meagre logistics, lack of proper training, and rampant corruption.

Despite the numerous high-profile jailbreaks, no lessons seem to have been learned, and we seem doomed to witness more chaos. The prison system remains a breeding ground for crime rather than a place for reform. A visit to any jail reveals a nightmare: habitual criminals, first-time offenders, convicts, and undertrials are all thrown together without any classification.

It’s a muddled mess. Despite sporadic efforts at the provincial level to update prison rules, torture and abuse by staff remain widespread, with prisoners’ rights to legal representation and humane treatment often ignored. Wealthy inmates can bribe their way to better healthcare while the poor suffer. Rehabilitation is an afterthought, with the system more focused on punishment than reintegration.

Jailbreak Saga Continues 1

Overall, Pakistani authorities tend to rely on a combination of enhanced security, investigations, and manhunts rather than broader reforms in response to major jailbreak incidents. Nevertheless, the persistent threat of such incidents highlights the need for more comprehensive and sustained efforts to address the underlying vulnerabilities in the country’s prison system. Part of the disorientation is because coordination between prisons and other components of the law enforcement apparatus is non-existent. Without serious intervention, all we will be left with is fortified cells for the powerful and open doors for the cunning.

The continued saga of jailbreaks in Pakistan is a reminder of the urgent need for systemic reform. At the level of institutional leadership, the cycle of suspension, replacement, and inaction must be broken. Real, meaningful changes should be introduced to transform prisons from breeding grounds for criminal activity into institutions of rehabilitation and reform. The authorities must also prioritize updating the archaic laws and rules governing prisons, enhance coordination among law enforcement agencies, and commit to rational accountability. It is only through a sustained and comprehensive effort that the deep-rooted issues within the prison system can be addressed and further chaos and tragedy prevented from happening again.

Dr. Syed Kaleem Imam

The writer is former federal secretary/IGP- PhD in Politics and IR-teaching Law and Philosophy at Universities. He tweets@Kaleemimam. Email:[email protected]: fb@syedkaleemimam

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