Rule of law

Prisons need reform

Prisons in Bangladesh are governed by laws which date back to the 19th century. In practice, many people, particularly the poor, become entangled in the penal system where they face violations of their human rights. Masses of prisoners languish in jail awaiting trial and spend many years imprisoned without legal support. However, significant developments in Bangladesh have demonstrated how prison populations can be reduced with low cost and innovative interventions.

By Sally Atkinson-Sheppard and Tim Pfannmüller

Bangladesh’s prisons are part of the criminal-justice system, which is under immense pressure. Case backlogs run into the millions, crippling the overburdened system. Corruption is also alleged to be rife among criminal-justice agencies. Moreover, there is a clear focus on punitive as opposed to restorative justice, and imprisonment is primarily seen as a way to gain retribution, but rarely considered as an opportunity to change inmates’ ­attitudes towards law and society.

Prisons in Bangladesh have historically been closed institutions. It is a very recent phenomenon that they are discussed in public – and at an international level (see box on page 108). Recent developments illustrate just how far Bangladesh is moving in relation to prison reform, and just how much of an ­example to the rest of the developing world Bangladesh could become.


Bangladesh’s prisons are severely overcrowded with people who have yet to be convicted and are awaiting trial. They make up a staggering 72 % of the ­prison population. These prisoners rarely have access to ­legal assistance. The length of pre-trial detention is often extended with many prisoners spending months or years awaiting a court date. Many will stay in prison for far longer than the sentence they would have served if they had been convicted of their accused crime. It is also a common occurrence for people to be detained for minor offences – which can be asso­ciated in many cases to poverty.

No doubt, the sheer number of prisoners is the prison services’ most pressing issue. Ten years ago there were 44,000 prisoners; today the number has risen to approximately 70,000. The prison system, however, was designed to house a mere 28,969 inmates. The country is incarcerating more than two and a half times as many.

The severe overcrowding in the prison system prevents resolving issues that with a smaller population could be tackled. For example, crowded ­prisons are renowned across the world to contribute to high levels of infectious disease. The lack of space impacts upon resources available for rehabilitation; there is only very basic education available in Bangladesh prisons and the availability of work or vocational training is inconsistent.

Overcrowding is compounded by structural ­issues. Many prisons in Bangladesh were built by the British in the 1800s and have yet to be modernised; this means that buildings are old, lack ventilation, light and proper sanitation. This makes adhering to UN recom­mended standards very difficult; prisoners often have to take turns to sleep and privacy is impossible to achieve.

The management of information of such a prison population is also problematic. IT systems are rarely available and thus enormous amounts of data are recorded in various forms and registers, increasing the possibility of losing vital information.

Unsurprisingly, staff have difficult jobs and work in difficult conditions. There is very little training available to support their development, and low salaries often make it a challenge for staff to maintain their monthly outgoings, making accessing funds from ‘alternative means’ possible.

Within a prison system that is struggling with such daunting challenges, the young, the mentally ill, those addicted to alcohol or drugs and women suffer the most. Prisons are simply not designed to support vulnerable inmates such as these. It is accepted practice in Bangladesh to hold vulnerable people in “safe custody”, where they will be imprisoned for their “safety” rather than because they have committed any sort of crime. Furthermore, there are neither procedures to assess the needs of prisoners nor the risks they may pose to others. Many prisoners are treated as ‘high risk’ when they may not need to be, wasting precious resources and money.

Steps in the right direction

Despite these issues, the Government of Bangladesh has shown commitment to improving the situation in prisons and to consider the overall reform of the criminal justice system. The Ministry of Home ­Affairs and the Prison Directorate are working with the ­support of the German Government through the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), with an approach that tackles problems on both a practical and strategic level.

To reduce overcrowding, an approach to suit the Bangladeshi context has been successfully developed and implemented in Africa, particularly in Malawi and Sierra Leone. The focus is specifically on under-trial prisoners without access to legal support. Paralegals from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been trained to identify “forgotten” prisoners who are often incarcerated for longer than their supposed sentence. This is the first time that the government has allowed “outsiders” to work inside prisons. It is a good example for an effective public-private partnership.

In three pilot prisons (out of 68 prisons in total) these paralegals have been able to identify a large number of prisoners who should not be in prison, ­either because they have already been imprisoned for longer than their supposed sentence or because they are innocent. The work of the paralegals has had a significant impact on reducing overcrowding in these pilot prisons. To date, 1057 prisoners have been released. The approach is therefore likely to be rolled out to further prisons in Bangladesh in the future.

To support this work the Government of Bangladesh is being assisted in drafting a new contemporary prison act which will replace the existing jail code which was enacted in 1864. The prison service is also in the process of writing its first strategic plan, which will allow issues such as the rehabilitation of prisoners, training of staff and support for vulnerable prisoners to be prioritised over the next five years.

Though the situation in prisons in Bangladesh is clearly challenging, the innovative path taken by the government is producing tangible results. There remains a great deal of work to be done, but Bangladesh has illustrated that a reform of a prison system can be initiated with low-cost interventions focusing on those who should not be in prison in the first place.

Thirty-two year old Rahim (not his real name), a CNG driver and the main wage earner for a seven-member family, was arrested on accusation of theft in 2007. The case was filed with a local police station and he was taken to a jail – and for­gotten.

Rahim is a victim of the “on call” situation prevalent in Bangladesh. When the court announced a date for his trial, they issued a production warrant to the prison authority. However, the production warrant never reached his prison. When the case date arrived, Rahim failed to appear in court and was thus recorded as an abscondee. Oblivious to his court order, Rahim was in prison awaiting his court date. This went on for three years. Rahim’s story is only one among hundreds of others who languish in prison without a trial; 72 % of inmates in Bangladesh are untried and therefore legally innocent. In most cases, they are poor people with no lawyers to defend them and with no idea about their legal rights. (sas/tp)

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