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Pakistan, COVID-19 vaccine, prisons, prisoners

Battling COVID-19 Behind Bars in Pakistan

There is some good news to share this International Prison Justice Day.

Words: Zarnaab Adil Janjua
Pictures: Ehsan Habashi

By August 2020, roughly 3% of Pakistan’s prison population had tested positive for COVID-19.  The Justice Project Pakistan’s COVID-19 positivity monitor for Pakistan’s decrepit prisons shows that the tally now stands at 3,316 prisoners with three having passed away. Though these figures come from news reports and official documents, one could argue that these numbers are a gross understatement — that many more may have suffered and passed away as a result of COVID-19 in any number of the Islamic Republic’s 119 notoriously overcrowded jails.

Pakistan’s prison system is one of the most corrupt systems in the world. The prisons are run by provincial governments and are overcrowded, understaffed, and poorly managed. In a country that is facing major economic and security problems both, prisons and prisoners often get neglected. The coronavirus, however, is changing that — albeit slowly. While it took Pakistan’s prison authorities some time to respond to the crisis in the country’s prisons, there is some good news to share on this International Prison Justice Day.


When the pandemic first began, it became a heightened concern for prison authorities. A 34% overcrowding rate meant that requisite social distancing was nothing short of a fantasy and the inadequate — or rather the absence of — healthcare facilities, coupled with a large chunk of the incarcerated population having pre-existing comorbidities, meant that Pakistan’s prison facilities were a fertile COVID-19 hotspot if there was any. Luckily, given the concerted pressure from civil society organizations such as Justice Project Pakistan, Penal Reform Institute, and Amnesty International and a well-organized response from the federal and provincial governments, the prisons departments were quick on the draw.

No visitors, immeasurably delayed court hearings, no proper access to requisite sanitation, and healthcare are just some of the ways detainees have been stuck in a special type of hell. Ensuring that these disenfranchised members of society are vaccinated against the virus is a moral and legal obligation.

Tussles around potential intellectual property waivers for large pharmaceutical companies and economic disparity has made vaccination a contentious global problem. In this climate, the already disenfranchised prison population of the world is not the top vaccination priority for most governments. With production for “PakVac” having started, it is now imperative to relax these requirements. The 0.1 million doses for Pfizer-BioNTech through the World Health Organization, the sizable Moderna shipment from Washington, and the provision of SinoPharm and SinoVac through Chinese assistance and others that have been purchased privately, bode well for Pakistan. Greatly increased availability of doses could well be a possibility soon. The prison population should benefit from this uptick as would any other citizen. Outbreaks of COVID-19 in Pakistani prisons have been scarcely documented. Regardless, the improved health of prisoners and overall improvement in healthcare facilities will serve as a useful metric to evaluate the effectiveness of ramping up vaccinations in prisons.

The efforts of numerous civil society organizations bore fruit when detainees became a priority population for vaccinations. A press release by the Inspector General (IG) of Prisons for Punjab gave us a well-deserved flurry of good news in a time fraught with confusion and stress. IG Mirza Shahid Saleem Baig reported that out of Punjab’s 47,000 prisoners, 27,090 had received the first dose of the vaccine with 5,545 fully inoculated. Moreover, 1,068 prison staff are fully inoculated with 6,667 having received the first jab. He also went on to comment on the stricter prison health protocols that had been established considering the pandemic. According to reports from Karachi, Sindh has vaccinated about 1,000 prisoners with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh both have a announced a vaccination drive for prisoners aged above 50. While laudable, Pakistan needs to expand the drive as more doses become available to include not only high-risk prisoners but all who are living in the current inadequate prison conditions.


Getting here wasn’t easy. The mandate of provincial governments to release pre-trial detainees was challenged in and struck down by the courts. Sindh and Punjab both announced wide-ranging prisoner release programs to stem the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. As it became clear that Pakistan’s prisons had the potential to be COVID-19 flash points, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah took the lead. In March 2020, he used the power vested in the chief minister’s office under Article 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and ordered the release of around 4,000 “under trial prisoners” (UTPs) in Sindh’s jails. In a mid-March 2020 order, the Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Minallah instructed authorities at Adiala Jail to release prisoners under trial and to refrain from arresting individuals over minor offenses.

Before these edicts could be fully carried out, however, in late March 2020 the Supreme Court of Pakistan suspended the Islamabad High Court order and prohibited any provincial or territorial government from unilaterally ordering the release of prisoners. In response to a petition moved by Advocate Raja Muhammad Nadeem, the apex court bench remarked that such “omnibus direction to release UTPs violated the basic concept of bail.” The Supreme Court did, however, establish newer and stricter criteria for prisoners who could be released. This included those above the age of 55, women and children, and physically/mentally ill prisoners. In April 2020, Punjab’s provincial Minister for Law Raja Basharat announced a plan to shift 3,500 inmates from overcrowded jails to those with a lower inmate population.


The coronavirus has been taxing on many levels. Returns to normalcy seem highly elusive as governments race to a finish line that just does not seem to be there. Amidst all this hullabaloo, the human cost borne by the world’s incarcerated population has been uniquely debilitating. No visitors, immeasurably delayed court hearings, no proper access to requisite sanitation, and healthcare are just some of the ways detainees have been stuck in a special type of hell. Ensuring that these disenfranchised members of society are vaccinated against the virus is a moral and legal obligation.

With the fourth wave and Delta variant wreaking further havoc post-Eid ul Azha, let us commit to decarceration on this World Prisoner Justice Day. For it is the surest way to ensure that Pakistan’s 82,139 inmates are not left to fall by the wayside once more.

Zarnaab Adil Janjua works as an Advocacy Officer for Justice Project Pakistan

Zarnaab Adil Janjua

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