Bring your own bribeby Rabia Ali
Inside the Karachi Central Jail, on a rather warm day in November, a prisoner, M*, desperately asks his brother and sister, “Did you bring the money?”
They are meeting in the last cabin of the visitor’s corridor, a thick transparent wall of glass standing between the inmate and his siblings.
“Yes bhai. I have Rs2,500,” the sister tells him nervously over the intercom.
“Make it at least Rs3,000. Otherwise they will beat me,” M whispers from the other side. The thin man standing beside him gives the family a piercing gaze. “So far, they have been taking care [of me],” M adds.
His two siblings immediately start rummaging through their wallet and purse and find a Rs500 note.
“Give the money to the man behind you,” M tells them.
Behind them is a bearded man in a white shalwar kameez who quickly takes the money, counts it and shows three fingers to the thin man on the other side.
Minutes later, a police officer walks around the cabin holding a register. He asks the prisoner’s name, his father’s, and scribbles the amount the bearded man in plainclothes has received, Rs3,000. His register carries many other names and the amounts the inmates’ families have paid the jail cops. A family paid Rs11,000 for one inmate, another paid Rs4,000.
Once the transaction takes place and is accepted, the prisoner can begin to relax. He is sure that he will be safe from the thrashing tonight - a luxury that will not be extended towards those inmates whose families failed to make any payments.
Culture of bribes
Charging families bribes to ensure the safety of the inmates is a culture well-entrenched at the Karachi Central Jail. This network is not only run by some jail staff but also prisoners with special authority who force families to pay bribes so that their loved ones are not beaten up, are given reasonably comfortable accommodation, are allowed to stretch their legs and use water for a bath.
The bribes may be illegal but the jail officials are keeping comprehensive record of the amount of money collected, who pays, who is being paid for. In fact, this correspondent witnessed officials who appeared to be hired especially for the task of collecting bribes. Apart from the man in uniform who jotted down the transactions on his register, the other men involved in the transaction were in plainclothes.
Trail of bribes
The prison is home to more than 6,000 prisoners including the country’s most dangerous militants belonging to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. It faces high risks of attacks and, only last year, the authorities foiled a plot by terrorists who had dug up a tunnel to reach the barracks.
This has led officials to install security measures, such as bomb-proof walls, additional checkpoints, cellphone jammers and closed-circuit television cameras. Apart from the infrastructural issues, the problem of corrupt jail officers - who may be willing to compromise security in exchange for a large-enough transfer into their bank accounts - needs the attention of government officials.
The trail of bribes at the central jail starts as soon as you step into the premises. The path from the main road to the meeting place is a long and corrupt one.
“Salam,” says a stout police officer manning the first barrier that leads into the jail road. A Rs100 note is slipped discreetly into his palm and the iron gates are flung open for the visitors to drive into the parking area.
The next checkpoint is the security check-up rooms - separate ones for men and women. Here the visitors are asked to deposit their cellphones. In the female security room which is closer to the main gate, a women police officer rummages through the handbags and eyes the wallet inside. “Mithai tou khilao [offer us some sweets],” she says, smiling at the purse owner with an obvious hint that she expects to be paid. Here the payment of Rs20 may be deemed sufficient.
The visitor then walks another five minutes into the visiting area, after passing yet another barrier and a checkpoint. A narrow steel passageway has been formed that visitors are asked to take and that separates them from the adjacent road.
The passageway stops at the second security checkpoint where both the male and female visitors are patted down. Depending on the mood of the security officer and the perception of wealth for the visitor, he/she can be asked to pay some bribe here as well.
A walkthrough gate leads to the waiting area for visitors, an overcrowded hall with few benches and lots of people who are filling out forms, getting their CNICs photocopied and waiting for their number to be called out so they can meet their loved ones. Once the batch number is called out, a small group of people make their way into the visitor’s corridor, an area with several glass cabins and intercoms.
The trail of bribes ends when the visitors reach the cubicles but not many families can afford the visits. M’s 15-day stint in jail ended up costing the family over Rs5,000.
Inside the prison
M, who has now been released on bail after he was arrested in October on charges of carrying an illegal weapon, shudders as he remembers the treatment meted out to those whose families were unable to pay.
He was taken to the ‘karateen’ ward, a name given by jail officials, when he was brought to the jail. In an overcrowded and congested hall, the prisoner found himself in the midst of people accused of giving away bounced cheques, carrying drugs or illegal weapons.
The thin man, who sat beside M when his family came to visit, is Saleem - a prisoner who acts as the ward incharge, recalled M. Every night, Saleem and his four partners would take rounds around the hall, kicking and punching those whose families were unable to pay for them.
“Rs10,000 is the common rate that everyone has to pay,” he says. “Some [inmates] were forced to pay Rs50,000. They take money from everyone, even poor labourers.”
Those who give money are moved towards the front of the hall, where they have space to move around, sit and sleep at night. Those who don’t are pushed back towards the end, where people sleep in one position and sit very close to each other. The front occupants can stretch their legs, take a bath, shave and cut their nails. Those who are unable to pay don’t even get water to clean up.
M figures out that Saleem and his goons pass on their collections to the jail officials. They probably have certain targets to meet, he says.
Despite being violent and brutal, Saleem does take care of the inmates when it comes to food, and makes a fuss when less food is sent to their ward. When M’s family paid him Rs3,000, he was moved to another ward, called the Raheem Ward, which is more spacious.
Shrugging away responsibility
Bribery and corruption in the jail is not a new phenomenon, which is perhaps why former jail superintendent Kazi Nazeer Ahmed, who has recently been replaced by Ghulam Murtaza Shaikh, shrugs away responsibility. When shared the manner in which the trail of bribes exists right under his nose, he dismissed it entirely. Corruption is not possible, he said, before adding that it has been reduced immensely. Later on, he added, it cannot be controlled 100 per cent.
The authorities have taken measures in the right direction but their effectiveness remains to be seen. In 2014, prisons minister Manzoor Wasan formed a task force to bring an end to corruption inside prisons across the province. In June this year, the SHC suspended 16 jail officials for being involved in corruption, such as taking money from prisoners to produce them in court or charging bribes from relatives during meetings in jail.