prison abolition pakistan

Written by Tazmeen Imran 12:17 pm Articles, Pakistan, Published Content

Why Prison Abolition is a Good Idea in Pakistan

Tazmeen Imran examines the prison abolition idea from the lens of the prison system in Pakistan. Seeing traditional prisons are no longer an effective method of punishment, she notes that the institution should possibly be abolished altogether. She lists down the apparent inadequacies of the traditional prison system in Pakistan, and then discusses the possible alternatives.
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Ms Tazmeen Imran is a second-year law student at the University of London.


Prison abolition is a radical movement that seeks to reduce or eliminate prisons and the prison system, replacing it with systems of rehabilitation that do not place a focus on punishment and incarceration. The movement does not have a definitive beginning, but its contemporary roots can be traced back to the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, and the idea has since then gained traction from the work and activism of famed abolitionists and scholars Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

More recently, prison abolition re-entered mainstream discourse as the masses lamented reform in the wake of worldwide protests around the #BlackLivesMatterMovement and the police killing of George Floyd.

Problems with the Prison

Imprisonment of lawbreaking individuals is generally said to have four purposes: (1) to express society’s urge for retribution, (2) to reform the wrongdoer, (3) to deter individuals from re-engaging in future criminal activity, and (4) to incapacitate the wrongdoer so as to protect civil society from their criminal behavior.

To gauge the failure of prison as an institution, one can look at how the prison has been unsuccessful in fulfilling the very purposes that justify its premise. It has become increasingly clear that prisons are criminogenic in nature. Academics and laymen alike have denounced prisons as ‘schools for crime’, and research has reinforced this assertion.

50 different studies conducted on the effect of prison on criminal behavior concluded that imprisonment does not reduce recidivism (a criminal’s ability to re-offend)—in fact, it was found that longer prison sentences were associated with a 3% increase in recidivism. Criminologists even argue that doing time in prison reinforces criminal identities and/or produces changes that lead to further criminal behavior.

The above may be attributable to the fact that prisoners in close proximity to other criminals can make new connections and find better ways to strategize and organize crime. Consequently, imprisoning criminals only provides a short-term solution to protecting society as the threat they posed before incarceration remains upon the criminal’s release. This shows that prison fails to play a reformative, deterrent, or protective role.

Part of the Criminal Justice System

Despite the obvious problems associated with the prison, it is worth noting how and why the prison became such an integral and uncontested part of the criminal justice system and society at large. A cursory look into the history of the prison reveals that the modern prison is a relatively recent invention.

Historically, the prison was not the punishment in itself but was merely a detention site where perpetrators of the crime were rounded up till the actual punishment could be carried out. It was only after the late 18th century that reformers like Jeremey Bentham and John Howard introduced the idea of punishment through imprisonment so as to replace the gory death penalty and other macabre corporal punishments practiced at the time (the stocks and pillories, whippings, brandings, and amputations).

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The reformers argued that punishment carried out in isolation would allow the perpetrators to reflect on their actions and thus actually reform. In this regard, imprisonment was a positive step towards the preservation of human rights. Thereafter, the idea caught on and subsequent reforms led to the modern prison we know today.

Once the idea of the prison was legally incorporated, it was also culturally and socially integrated, whereby civil society accepted the institution as a way of punishment and retribution with much equanimity. Scholars argue this was partly made possible by the visuality linked to the prison.

Professor Gina Dent points out that familiarity with the prison comes in part from the way we consume representations of prisons in film and other visual media. It follows then that the prison as shown in films and on television creates a level of comfort with the institution, which in turn blocks our ability to critique its premise to ascertain its shortcomings.

Prisons are thus taken for granted, and as Davis points out, ‘function ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers’.

This placability, however, is challenged by the abolition project, as it forces us to look beyond punishment, cages, and perpetrators—it redirects discourse to questioning the efficacy of the prison system as a whole in the modern age.

As Professor Angela Davis has written, “We should question whether a system that was intimately related to a particular set of historical circumstances that prevailed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can lay absolute claim on the twenty-first century.” Such a critical framework can also be extrapolated to the prison system in Pakistan.

Prisons in Pakistan

The prisons in Pakistan are plagued with a range of problems, many of them stemming from budget deficiencies. The International Crisis Group’s report on Pakistani prisons in 2011 offers insight into its grim realities. Most of the prison buildings constructed in the 19th century are in a dilapidated condition, unable to be repaired adequately due to lack of/or insufficient funds.

Due to dysfunctional legal mechanisms, one of the major problems remains overcrowding, with the prisons having an occupancy rate 33.7% above the official carrying capacity. This overcrowding in turn has resulted in improper segregation of offenders whereby militants, remand prisoners, juveniles, and low-level or first-time offenders are all imprisoned together, posing a high risk of in-prison violence.

Overpopulation also results in easy transmission of infectious diseases, including sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS. Due to budget constraints, there is a lack of proper medical care facilities to cater to the diseased inmates. Furthermore, due to the acute shortage of trained administrative staff, crime stays rampant in the prisons.

Conditions for minority Pakistani prisoners, especially Ahmadis and Christians, are much worse—on top of the routine maltreatment and abuse, these prisoners fall victim to xenophobically motivated persecution and marginalization at the hands of the prison staff and inmates.

In such dismal circumstances, it becomes inevitable that the Pakistani prison system meant to reform prisoners, makes them obstinate criminals, more likely to return to crime upon release than to abandon it. An almost instinctive reaction to the state of the prison in Pakistan is to resort to reform proposals.

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Recent governments have shown an interest in this matter, with just recently the former Chief Minister Punjab constituting a committee for the welfare of prisoners and improvement in the prison system of the province after visiting Kot Lakhpat jail. While reforms are crucial, as Davis points out, “frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison.”

Abolitionist perspectives thus go beyond reform to “creatively exploring new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.” What then, do these new terrains of justice such as prison abolition look like for Pakistan?

Prison Abolition for Pakistan

Among the myriad frameworks advanced by abolitionists, a starting point would be the Attrition Model, as proposed by the Prison Research Education Action Project in their 1976 pamphlet, “Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists”. According to the handbook, the three steps, also called the three pillars of abolitionism, are:

  1. Moratorium
  2. Decarceration
  3. Exa-carceration

The first step towards abolitionism, moratorium, is simply to stop building more prisons. As mentioned earlier, the biggest problem that plagues Pakistani prisons is overcrowding. To tackle the problem, a ubiquitous recourse is to build more jails—in Punjab, for example, there are 11 newly finished prisons, with 3 more now under construction, with 8.58 billion rupees (around $100 million), assigned to carry out the job.

Likewise, in Sindh, new barracks and cells are being built in Karachi, Khairpur, Mirpurkhas, and Thatta with a budget of around 1.4 billion rupees. The abolition model prescribes the halting of new prison construction and advocates for a redirection of funds to socioeconomic and community-building projects that would curb the crime rate, and consequently the incarceration rate. Thereafter, the addition of newer prisons would not be necessary.

Alternatively, the funds assigned for building new jails can be used to improve the conditions of the jails that already exist. The next pillar of abolitionism, decarceration, involves finding ways to get people out of prison. It is contended that a large part of the present imprisoned population represents no threat to society, and therefore should not be languishing behind bars.

In Pakistan, a large part of the prison population, an astronomical 70%, is represented by pre-trial detainees and remand prisoners. This happens to be the case as many of the prisoners lack awareness and access to proper legal representation which could facilitate their way to post bail. Decarceration strategies would therefore focus on strengthening mechanisms of legal assistance and representation for prison inmates.

While certain mechanisms, such as the 2009 Public Defender and Legal Aid Office Act (PDLAOA) that aims to provide quality and free legal and defender services to protect individual rights already exist, renewed attention to such Acts’ enforcement would be a strategic move towards prison abolition in Pakistan. Likewise, reforming and strengthening the parole and probation mechanisms would also expedite the decarceration policy, and bring many prisoners back to the free world.

Lastly, the third pillar of abolitionism, exa-carceration, is perhaps the most transformative and overarching goal of the abolition project. This pillar entails finding ways of diverting the masses away from crime and subsequently the prison in the first place. It holds that the real work of abolition is done “away from prisons — in shelters, health clinics, schools, and in battles over government budget allocations.”

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Thus the abolitionist project is “not just deconstructive and critical; it is reconstructive and visionary, pushing for a radical reimagination of the state and the law that serves it.” For Pakistan, exa-carceration strategies would require an assessment of the social pathologies that plague our society, coercing people into turning to crime—unemployment, lack of education, lack of access to healthcare, stigmatization of mental health, inter alia, need to be considered.

As Professor Ward Thomson has noted, criminals “are not some immutable historical inevitability, but rather the predictable byproduct of a diseased society.” A renewed attention to the provision of basic rights would be a major step for Pakistan to curb its crime rate and thus the incarceration rate. Exa-carceration strategies would also entail the decriminalization of certain offences.

An example would be decriminalizing religion—the blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws, which have a mandatory death sentence and contain vague legal language which allows public officials and citizens alike to enforce biases and bring false cases against religious minorities. As a result of this, Pakistan has the largest death row population. Amending and or repealing such legal provisions would inevitably curb the prison population and thus mitigate the larger overcrowding problem.

In line with the Attrition Model, refocusing on principles of restorative rather than punitive justice is another crucial step towards prison abolition in Pakistan. Restorative justice is a method whereby the relationship between offender and victim is restored to how it was prior to the harm being committed.

The method is hardly new for an Islamic State like Pakistan, as Professor Hascal has written “both restorative justice and Islamic criminal jurisprudence emphasise the dignity of the individual, and support opportunities for rehabilitation and healing for all parties.”

Not only would such an alternative approach reduce burdens on the prison system of Pakistan, but as recent research has suggested, may significantly reduce the inclination of the perpetrators to reoffend thus curbing the overall crime rate in the country.


The prison abolition project entails finding ways of dispensing justice that does not directly rely on the prison. It hopes to achieve this not just by shutting down prisons, but also by tackling the underlying social and economic disparities in our communities that force people to turn to crime and then to prison. It provides functional alternative methods of dealing with lawbreaking individuals that hold the capacity to reform and rehabilitate perpetrators of crime in the long term.

While it is surely a hefty task to undertake for a country like Pakistan, the over-ambition of the task is not a reason enough to abandon the abolition project altogether. As laid out in this article, the alternative discourse offered by abolitionism can help create concrete socio-economic reforms that hold the capacity to mitigate crime rates and curb the prison population, eventually enabling Pakistan to nurture a society that would not need prisons in the first place. Welcoming such change would be a step forward towards reforming our criminal justice system for the better.

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