Overcrowding in Karachi Central Jail has given prisoners many sleepless nights and stuffy, congested afternoons.
An inmate Rameez lives in a barrack of the Raheem Ward, where 247 men are cramped in a space meant for 100. At night, as they spread out on the floor, some find space just outside the bathroom.
Before the Karachi Operation was initiated the prison was already overcrowded with 4,000 inmates. The number has now risen to more than 6,000. “Overcrowding is the root of every problem in the jail,” says the jail superintendent, Kazi Nazeer Ahmed.
Built in 1897, the Karachi Central Jail has the capacity to house 2,400 inmates. Before renovations, it had space for 500 prisoners. On 10 September 2015, the population of the jail stood at 6,229.
Of these, 5,001 were under-trial prisoners, while 1,170 were convicted prisoners, including 145 on death row. There were 30 foreigners. The total population also had 58 in detention, those detained by the Rangers and other law enforcement agencies for 90 days.
Covering an area of 26 acres, the jail has 52 barracks and 203 cells, with the population varying with each unit. In February, the number rose to 6,300, its highest going to 6,800 during the operation in the 1990s.
Rameez’s barrack has two toilets and two shower rooms, the stench from which could be smelled from a distance. “There is no running water and what little we do get is from the well,” complain the prisoners. They have to fill up bottles and stock up on water for the night.
Every barrack has four to five toilets and NGOs have helped build toilets to accommodate the prisons’ needs. But now overcrowding is leading to an acute water shortage. Specific timings are being issued when prisoners can wash clothes.
In the cramped hall, a man points to his leg showing marks of scabies. Skin diseases are common here. While some men are treated at the hospital, using ointments to treat scabies has become common among the inmates.
The authorities don’t want the number of staff to be revealed. They don’t have enough men for the security and administration of the prison, which houses some of the most dangerous and high profile prisoners in the country.
Ahmed says that they should have at least 1,500 men to run the affairs of the jail. Due to the overcrowding, around 3,000 people visit the jail everyday to meet their imprisoned loved ones. This puts further strain on the already depleted resources.
As the Karachi operation intensifies, the authorities are worried about housing the VVIPs. An influential young man and his father were asked to vacate their rooms to make way for three Pakistan Peoples Party leaders.
As mattresses and clean bed sheets were arranged for them, the authorities say that the jail will see more influential people coming to its premises.”We would have to make new barracks for the VVIPs,” one chuckled.
The superintendent calls for every district to have their own jails to solve the overcrowding issues. Moreover, those prisoners captured by federal agencies should be held in their facilities, not Karachi Central Jail.
But he knows this issue won’t be solved any time soon. “This won’t end. Soon we will be hearing that there are 7,000. One day it will be 20,000 prisoners…”