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Bangladeshi prisoners 'dying in misery'

Only nine doctors are serving 90,000 inmates in secretive prisons that lack accountability

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Bangladeshi prisoners 'dying in misery'

A doctor carries out a medical check-up at a clinic in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in this 2013 file photo. There are only nine doctors in eight out of 68 jails housing more than 90,000 inmates in Bangladesh. (Photo by Chandan Robert Rebeiro/ucanews.com) 

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Most prison inmates in Bangladesh suffer from an extreme lack of basic facilities including medical services, leading to misery and deaths, according to rights activists.

Only nine of the 141 doctor posts in 68 prisons are filled, said Brig. Gen. A.K.M. Mustafa Kamal Pasha, inspector-general of prisons.

Bangladesh has 90,638 inmates but only eight prisons have doctors, so nurses and pharmacists take care of inmates in the 60 prisons without doctors, Pasha said while visiting a prison in Narayanganj district near the capital Dhaka on Sept. 16.

Last year 316 inmates died from ailments including cardiac problems, diabetes, tuberculosis, as well as kidney and liver failure, while 188 died in the first eight months of this year, which means about 23 inmates die in prison due to illness every month.

Pasha said the department is working to improve the situation. "We have already held meetings with the home and health ministries. The prime minister has given directives in this regard and the work is underway in line with them," Dhaka Tribune newspaper quoted him as saying.

Prisoners in Bangladesh are victims of a discriminatory system, according to rights activists and a senior church official.

“Our prisons run on a system based on the British colonial-era Jail Code. Over the past three or four years, we have been hearing that a new Jail Code has been drafted, but it has yet to become law, so implementation is still a far cry,” barrister Jyotirmoy Barua, a panel lawyer with the Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust, told ucanews.com.

The Supreme Court lawyer also blamed the “extreme secretiveness” of prison systems that bar anyone from seeking accountability.

“Legally, you cannot question the prison budget, income and expenses, be it a regular or development budget. There is no discussion on the jail budget in parliament, so we don’t know about it and cannot question how much money has been disbursed from the allocated budget,” Barua said.

Also, there is an “unhealthy mindset” toward prisons and inmates, he said.

“In many countries, especially in Scandinavia, governments are closing down prisons. But in South Asia prisons are increasing,” Barua said.

“Bangladeshi authorities boasted that they want to establish the largest prison in Asia. This mindset is a social sickness. Our aim should be how to decrease crimes and correct people in society, but the mindset about creating more prisons goes against our constitutional and human rights.”

An open secret

Catholic and Protestant clergy conduct prison ministries amid a secretive environment and restrictions, said Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, head of the prison ministry desk at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh.

Every time a church delegate wants to meet prisoners for services, they must seek permission, which is often not granted, the priest said.  

“Prisons should be a place for correction and rehabilitation, not for punishment. But this is not the reality in Bangladesh,” Father Gomes told ucanews.com.

He said prisons have improved in terms of infrastructure in recent years, with new buildings, digital information, internet, telephones, pillows for prisoners, meetings with relatives and better food. 

“On paper, there are good improvements in prisons, but questions remain about how much of these improvements are translated into services,” Father Gomes said.

The priest said the extremely poor medical services in prisons are an open secret. “The conditions of women prisoners are worse, be it treatment or sanitation. When prisoners are taken to courts or transferred to other jails, they don’t get any food or water,” he said.

For years, the Church has offered spiritual services to Christian prisoners and charity for all.

“We arrange prayer services and Mass for Christians. For charity, we meet and talk to prisoners completely separated from families and we offer counseling for mentally challenged prisoners. We distribute comfortable essentials like oil, body lotions and clothes before religious festivals,” Father Gomes said.

“We must break the hardened prison system because we believe everything should be transparent and service-oriented in prisons.”

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