Afghanistan’s notorious Pul-i-Charki - a pilot for prison reform

It’s overcrowded and understaffed, security is shaky, it lacks sufficient electricity and water, and in late February a prison riot caused thousands of dollars worth of damage and left six inmates dead there. Yet the notorious Pul-i-Charkhi is a model prison for Afghanistan as the country strives to build a democratic society based on the rule of law.
“Pul-i-Charki is a great prison compared to the other prisons in the country,” says Brian Tkachuk, corrections adviser to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). “Most are uninhabitable,” he adds, referring to provincial jails and an estimated 300 legal detention centres around the country.

But the Ministry of Justice, which has jurisdiction over prisons and detention centres, is determined to rectify the situation and improve conditions countrywide. “We have to put theory into practice,” Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai said during a recent visit to Pul-i-Charkhi by UN Special Representative Tom Koenigs.

The process has already begun. A law on prisons and detention centres was promulgated in May 2005 and a Ministry of Justice consultative working group was set up last year to prepare a strategy for all prison reform, including construction and rehabilitation of prisons, administration and training. The United Nations plays a key role in the body, which meets regularly.

Meanwhile, the Afghanistan Compact launched earlier this year explicitly acknowledges the need to reform and improve the prison sector as an integral part of a functioning democracy, as well as the need to ensure separate facilities for women and juveniles.

These measures should help encourage the donor community to funnel more funds into the neglected sector. “The Central Prison needs more attention focused on it,” stresses Pul-i-Charkhi Governor Major-General Shamir Amirpoor, whose jail has received the lion’s share of donor attention.

Located just east of Kabul, the sprawling Pul-i-Charkhi complex opened after communist leader Nur Mohammad Taraki seized power in April 1978 and plunged the country into more than two decades of bloody turmoil. “Pul-i-Charkhi prison in Kabul was without doubt a kind of Buchenwald,” the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel said in 1984, referring to the murders of thousands of political prisoners by Taraki and his successors.

Things are better today. Behind its high, thick walls, Pul-i-Charkhi houses some 2,200 prisoners, or about a third of the country’s estimated prison population of 6,100. The facility has a medical clinic, library, kitchen and running water, but it is reaching saturation point and conditions are woefully short of international norms.

The male inmates, including some 200-300 Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, are kept in gloomy, cell-lined corridors in two concrete blocks. Electricity is sporadic. About 75 women – many with young children – are kept in separate, more airy quarters.

Gen. Amirpoor says the prison authorities lack adequate equipment, staff are poorly paid – a recipe for corruption – and security is inadequate. “That’s why we have a problem with drugs being smuggled into the prison,” he adds.

He says the prison does not have the facilities to categorise prisoners, which means that some people spend more time in prison than they should do. “That is a very big problem,” says a foreign corrections expert, adding that young criminals often end up in wards with Taliban prisoners. “It becomes a potential recruitment ground for militants.”

The general says this issue is being addressed, but stresses that international help is needed. The sense of urgency was highlighted in late February when more than 1,000 inmates went on a four-day rampage at Pul-i-Charkhi, partly in protest at the poor conditions.

The protests have not been restricted to Pul-i-Charkhi. In January, inmates at Farah's central jail protested against poor conditions and overcrowding. In Faryab, there have recently been allegations of mistreatment and torture.

Reform of the system and concrete improvements have been under way for more than a year and could gain pace if the government and donors honour commitments under the Afghanistan Compact. Help has come from a handful of international donors, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States Agency for International Development and Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with Italian funding, has rehabilitated a detention facility in Kabul as well as a prison block and kitchen and visiting areas in Pul-i-Charkhi. It is also constructing closed women’s and juvenile prisons in the capital, while the UN Children’s Fund is building an open juvenile facility in Kabul.

UNODC is overseeing a major new project at Pul-i-Charkhi – construction and staffing of a maximum security unit for high-profile drug dealers. The initiative in support of the government’s counter-narcotics strategy is funded by Belgium, Britain and Canada. Next door the Americans are renovating a block to house suspected terrorists, including Afghans who have been held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

Some provincial prisons are benefiting from the reform drive and the Ministry of Justice’s consultative working group is preparing a matrix prioritising construction needs in all 34 provincial prisons, including Pul-i-Charkhi. This will be presented to donors.

“We are building new prisons in Gardez and in Mazar-i-Sharif,” says UNODC expert Carla Ciavarella, while adding that Mazar and some other provincial prisons are in such a bad state that the government has had to hold their prisoners in rented premises.

Meantime, training programmes and administrative reforms are under way or being developed. These include courses for 200 staff scheduled to work in the maximum security unit and US-funded training programmes for all prison staff and for officers. UNODC is developing a course about the new prisons law for judges, prosecutors, prison staff and human rights workers.

Though the reform process has been kick-started, it will be a long time before most provincial prisons and the scores of detention centres start benefiting. “The situation regarding prisons in Afghanistan remains critical,” according to a recent UNAMA report.

But the UN is upbeat about the future. “I’m very impressed by the spirit of improvement,” Tom Koenigs said at the end of his Pul-i-Charkhi visit, before pledging the UN’s continued assistance to reform and rehabilitation of the prisons sector.

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