Crime may be equal, criminals are not

  • Unfair advantage in Pakistan is being allowed and perpetuated by the state

With Maryam Nawaz and her father in jail, and Captain Safdar already there, it remains to be seen how the former first family handles surroundings that are rather less opulent than what they are used to. A report a few days ago mentioned that the Sharifs would need to apply for Better Class jail facilities if they wish to have them. The question is: should any person in prison be allowed to have better facilities than another?

This is not about the Sharifs per se, or what one thinks of their priorities. It is about what constitutes justice. The Sharifs are simply referred to here because they happen to be uppermost in our minds at present.

There is not enough space in this column, nor are we all qualified to write at length about justice, but common sense alone provides some answers. And one of those answers begs the question: what is a crime?

According to one definition, ‘a crime is any harmful act or omission against the public which the state wishes to prevent, and which upon conviction is punishable by fine, imprisonment, and/or death.’

Prison is, as a website for a ‘private prison’ in the US (more about that later) says, a “highly disruptive experience.” That is a gem of an understatement. Most prisoners, not just the female ones, face the risk of violence, including sexual violence. Shared, overcrowded facilities mean varying levels of hygiene, and there is boredom and isolation for those dependent on television and newspapers. If the punishment is to be just, it must apply equally to all prisoners regardless of their bank account. A prisoner who can buy his way into comfort over and above the very public he has offended against is like a prisoner buying out the judge.

The purpose of jail is for the security of society, to prevent the criminal from being able to commit another crime, as much a deterrent for would-be criminals, and a place of reformation

If the punishment is to fit the crime rather than the criminal’s status and situation in society, you would expect the law to reflect that.

Yet, a notification from the Home Department, Government of Punjab, says that a prisoner may apply for better facilities if he/she is a casual not a professional offender, and owns around 50 acres of irrigated land or comparable assets that can be substantiated by information provided to the tax authorities, in other words it is reflected in their tax returns.

That indicates (apart from the casual offender bit), that only the rich may obtain better facilities in jail.

For those interested, the US presents some flamboyant instances of prisoners upgrading to better facilities, even those prisoners imprisoned for more serious crimes.

In Los Angeles County Jail, a man convicted of sexual battery was able to “avoid county jail entirely. He did his time in Seal Beach’s small city jail, with amenities that included flat-screen TVs, a computer room and new beds. He served six months, at a cost of $18,250, according to jail records.”

Such ‘pay to stay’ facilities are the ‘private’ jails mentioned above. It seems in a recent period of five years, more than 3,500 people, some of them convicted of serious crimes, made use of that programme in the US. The website of one of those jails promotes it as a place where criminals can serve their time in a “less intimidating environment.”

Special privileges, where allowed, are hardly conducive to making inmates regret their crime, since, as in the outside world, in jail they still have the pleasure of feeling superior to the very public they have presumably offended against.

All prisoners are entitled to the same basic humane conditions, which is the case in societies where jail is perceived as an opportunity for both reform and punishment. But this is definitely not how it is in Pakistan.

In Britain, there appears to be greater homogeneity, although there are some new prisons coming up that provide much the same kind of facilities as in those US prisons, the difference being that in Britain the facilities are free. Oh, and they have en suite bathrooms in Britain where that is a luxury indeed for the great bulk of the population. One man, convicted for repeatedly stabbing his wife and now imprisoned in one of these ‘fancy’ facilities actually boasted that he was better off in prison.

It is unlikely that the Sharifs will be able to say that. There are no gilded lions in prison, although they may be able to buy biryani till the cows come home.

But there’s more. The notification from Punjab’s Home Department mentioned earlier also specifies that only a person who holds a graduate degree can apply for better facilities in jail.

What on earth does an academic degree have to do with the matter? Under that law, had he committed a crime for which he could be imprisoned, our beloved Abdul Sattar Edhi who possessed neither a birth certificate nor a degree (except honorary ones) would not be eligible for better facilities. That he would not have applied for special facilities for himself is another matter altogether.

Crime and punishment in Pakistan require more consideration.

The purpose of jail is for the security of society, to prevent the criminal from being able to commit another crime, as much a deterrent for would-be criminals, and a place of reformation – so that inmates may regret their actions and not engage in crime again. And since there is also a proven connection between poverty and crime, with notable exceptions, for those without skills training programmes help to break that connection.

To allow persons to buy their way to comfort in jail is to give them an unfair advantage, since other prisoners do time under worse conditions. This is unfair, unjust and not even-handed. Yet this unfair advantage in Pakistan is being allowed and perpetuated by the state, and its laws. So what then if people take advantage of privilege outside jail?