The rot behind the prison bars: Urgent need for reforms

The rot behind the prison bars: Urgent need for reforms

There has been a 100 percent increase in deaths of inmates in Tihar jail. Thirty five prisoners have died there in judicial custody in 2013 in comparison to 18 in 2012.

This is not all. Such horrifying news often keep on coming from Ghaziabad, Rohini and the country’s other jails. All this, once again, has brought into sharp focus the working of our prison administration. It goes without saying that the state of Indian prisons is so deplorable that less said about it the better. These are the walled houses of cruelty, torture and defiled dignity.

The jail manuals are antiquated, the architecture is primitive and the attitude of jail authorities is not only indifferent, but unpardonably dehumanising. Subhuman living conditions, prison riots, jail-breaks, suicides, custodial deaths and frequent escapes are regular occurrences.  All this notwithstanding, we have to accept the prison system as a necessary evil and reform it with a sense of urgency.

As per our judicial philosophy, jails are expected to serve four objectives:
 retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation. Crimes that disrupt society have to be punished and hence criminals must pay by losing part of their freedom.  Law-breakers ought to be segregated so that they do not harm innocent people. Future crimes have to be prevented by making the delinquent understand that the infringement of law is not permissible in a civilized society.
And when the jail term ends, the prisoner should be able to return to the mainstream as a law abiding citizen

Ironically, the ground realities are different. No jail in the country has the resources for keeping prisoners in healthy surroundings. No prison has an imaginative reformatory system governed by upright officers who want to bring about a change of heart in a criminal. In that event, jails make hardcore criminals even out of ordinary offenders. Insanitary conditions, shortage of food, medicines and medical staff, laxity, mismanagement and corruption in the prison administration only add to the misery. The government has still to evolve guidelines for prison management on modern lines. Although the subject has been examined in depth by four committees since 1919-20 and in four landmark judgments of the Supreme Court in 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1990, the fact remains that prison authorities pay scant regard to the guidelines evolved. They do not adhere even to the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners, 1995. Worse still, their decisions are dictated by a piece of legislation -- the Prisons Act 1894 --  which was enacted by a colonial regime that saw jails as places to break the back of the nationalist movement. The Union government should evolve a standard jail manual applicable throughout the country with the help of human rights activists, judges, lawyers and eminent criminologists.

The root cause of all the problems in the country’s 1394 jails is overcrowding. In some cases, jails are filled to 500-600 per cent more of their official capacity, as widely reported. For instance,  Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail, has a sanctioned capacity of 804 inmates, but statistics reveal that 2,300 prisoners are currently lodged in it. In Bihar, jails have a capacity of about 21,750 inmates but house over 38,000. Similarly, Asia’s most prestigious Tihar jail houses 13,500 inmates against its authorised capacity of 6,250.The position in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab, Gujarat and West Bengal is no better. The influx of new inmates adds to the problem. It goes without saying that overcrowding is as much a violation of the “right of life” as denial of a “speedy trial”.

Negative effects

At the same time, overcrowding has its negative effects. Housing of petty offenders and hardened criminals together can even turn the former into hardened criminals, in a short time. Many gangsters recruit members of their criminal gangs out of these redeemable offenders. The outbreak of diseases like malaria, diarrhea, cholera, infection, tuberculosis  and AIDS is quite frequent. Overcrowding hampers efforts to check the inflow of drugs inside jails.  Staffers interested in making money bring in a regular supply of charas. The practice of homosexuality may enhance the risk of prisoners becoming AIDS victims.

When unmanageable numbers of people are forcibly put together, violence is all too common, with staff failing to keep watch or even directly ‘disciplining’ prisoners. The majority of these crimes go unreported because they occur behind prison walls, sealed away from the outside world.  Many are indifferent to this brutality, viewing it as fitting informal punishment for despised criminals. The crime and fear in prisoners, though, only entrenches a cycle of violence, and comes at a great social cost. Prisoners are also far likelier than other citizens to commit suicide in despair, and jail authorities are responsible for preventing such deaths. The presence of a large number of undertrial prisoners had led to overcrowding. According to a PIL filed in the Supreme Court recently, the undertrials constitute 64.07 per cent of the total prison population in India. There are over 2.41 lakh undertrial prisoners languishing in various jails. Inordinate delay in the disposal of their cases often keep them behind bars. Many undertrial prisoners, in spite of bail, cannot furnish bail bounds or are unable to leave the jail as they have no livelihood outside. The very rationale of punishment is defeated when detention without trial stretches beyond what is prescribed by law. Taking a serious note of this, the apex court recently entertained a PIL petition filed by a Delhi based lawyer urging it to intervene and direct government to frame a policy to grant bail to prisoners facing trial for petty offences.

Above all, a visible prison policy should focus primarily on the ‘reductionist methods’ which have helped countries like Japan, England, the US and Holland to lessen prison population and improve infrastructure. For doing this, a multi-pronged strategy is needed. The judiciary should be asked to exercise restraint when dealing with minor offences. Undertrials must be let out on parole, probation and bail. The introduction of heavy fines and confiscation of property may also be simultaneously considered as a viable alternative to imprisonment. While this measure seems unlikely to find favour in India, it may be tried out on white collar criminals to start with.

(The writer is a Supreme Court advocate)

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