Prison reform is the need of the hour
We appreciate the efforts of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in unearthing large-scale financial irregularities in Dhaka Central Jail during 2019-20 fiscal year. According to The Daily Star's report on this issue, the CAG audit team has found 14 counts of irregularities in the amount of Tk 37.5 crore. These include giving prisoners substandard and insufficient food, overbilling, violating procurement rules, not depositing canteen revenue to the exchequer, etc.
We are well aware of the deplorable state of our prisons, as this has been reported many times before. Among the common challenges inmates face are unhygienic living conditions, overcrowding, torture by staff and other inmates, and a highly organised system of corruption that extends to extorting money for services that the jail should provide anyway. All this paints a grim picture of the plight of prisoners. The audit report only reinforces the reality of the subhuman conditions under which they are kept in jail.
It is especially shocking that auditors found putrid, low-quality rice in the Central Jail's silos. The jail authorities spent Tk 9.11 crore for rice that proved to be unfit for consumption. Not only were the meals of poor quality, even the portions of fish and meat served were less than the minimum required. There were no fruits either. The quality of food in general is so poor that many inmates are forced to pay to get food from outside. Earlier reports in this paper have also found that some prison staff extract a hefty sum of money from prisoners' families in exchange for basic facilities such as proper bedding, water for bathing and even access to toilet. We shudder to think what prisoners who cannot pay these "fees" must go through.
The CAG audit makes it clear that those members of the jail administration responsible for procurement and distribution of food enjoy impunity which allows them to continue to engage in irregularities. The audit is of only one fiscal year, however. It is essential that audit reports from previous and current years are revealed.
We urge the prison authorities and the higher-ups at the home ministry to critically examine not just how jail funds are being spent but also the overall conditions of our jails. They must identify those engaged in corrupt practices and punish them under the law. Prisoners are required to serve their jail time according to their convictions. But no one should be treated with such cruelty and neglect. It violates the basic principles of human dignity that every person is entitled to. The parliament, which has been presented with the audit report, must respond properly to put a stop to this and humanise our prisons.