Poor legal advice leads to overcrowding

Poor legal advice leads to overcrowding

Jails appear to be the same for centuries. A prisoner has to bribe officials to get benefits. He can only write one letter in a month to his family, according to the Jail Manual. The archaic rules are still governing jails. These things give a feeling that things have not moved with the time.

I was lodged in what was called a solitary cell. I was a political prisoner. Though I was never kept in an overcrowded barrack, I have heard about them and I had the opportunity to go to barracks and interact with the inmates.

I realised in Nagpur Jail, where I was jailed after my arrest in 2007, that majority of inmates did not fit into any recognisable definition of a criminal. They had landed in jail either because they had been falsely implicated by the police or because of an attack they had committed in a fit of anger, often during a family feud. They had been convicted due to poor legal advice at their trials.

When I think about overcrowding, my focus is not just about the discomfort in stay inside the barracks. It is not just the barracks, which are the symbols of overcrowding. An overcrowded barrack would mean that every other facility is stretched. From water to sanitation to medical facilities to hygiene to proper ventilation, everything is stretched. There is just one toilet in operation during night for one barrack, say for some 200 prisoners.

Hygiene and sanitation are really big issues in jail and it become more serious in an overcrowded jail. I was lodged in the Nagpur Jail. Its capacity may be 1,000 or 1,500 but it has 2,500 inmates. The actual figure will be much higher than the mandated one.

The problem of overcrowding affects a prisoner’s entire life, since it overloads water resources, latrines, sanitation and ventilation. The Prison Manual defines the minimum space allotted to a prisoner in a barrack as 3.71 sq metre and 15.83 cu metre. However, in practice, it is normal for three inmates to sleep in the space meant for one.

With such overcrowding as well as a noticeable lack of hygiene, contagious diseases have a free run in the barrack. Often, at the bathing tank, with everyone stripped to their underwear, one could easily observe all inmates of the same barrack having developed scabies or the same body rash. Prolonged incarceration, repeated trips to courts, a poor prison diet and lack of proper medical supplements also affect their health.

Prison as correctional facility
I had written about the mad rush for taking bath in my book ‘Colours of the Cage: A Prison Memoir’: “Morning brings a mad rush to the tanki or haus, as the bathing tank is known. Four hundred prospective bathers laying claim to a 60 by 3 foot trough means a hurried bath even at the best of times. In summer, when the water being pumped out of the well is likely to run dry, the pace is bound to be frantic. Jail lore tells of the guy who's not fast enough and has to rinse off the soap by catching the drops dripping off his neighbour's body. The ones who don't learn to brush teeth, take a bath and rinse out their underwear in 10 minutes flat are destined to scrape the bottom of the haus.”

Regarding the issue of prisons as a correctional facility, it is important to recognise a growing trend to our approach to criminal justice. A trend has been developing to incarcerate people for a longer and longer term. In any discourse on justice, the easy quick-fix solution is seen as making punishments harsher. Take the debate about death penalty for example.

One alternative to abolishing death penalty is seen as imprisonment till natural death. This dangerous trend is reflected in our judiciary.

Criminals cannot just be deleted and put in the recycle bin never to be remembered. Crime does not disappear by doing away with criminals. A penal solution cannot be a real and permanent social solution. Criminals are a reality, which we have to live with. We have to get them back into society. This is not only necessary for them but also all the more for us. No society can be really free when it imprisons its own.

(Arun Ferreira is an activist based in Mumbai. He was arrested by Maharashtra Police in 2007 alleging that he is a Maoist. After spending close to 5 years in jail, 41-year-old Ferreira walked out prison in 2012 on bail and this year, court cleared him of all charges in the 11th and last case against him.)
(As told to Shemin Joy)

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