It's time to look into our prisons

Punishment is a means of inflicting pain. By and large, no one likes to be punished but punishment has certain purposes to serve. There are certain pre-decided social and legal norms that need to be respected and adhered to. Any deviation from these set norms invites punishment and such a punishment is necessary to ensure social order and uphold the sanctity of these legal and social norms.

From a sociological angle, punishment can have four different purposes. The first one is deterrence which aims at punishing the criminals in order to stop other individuals from indulging in criminal activities.

The second is rehabilitation which aims at restoring the criminal to be a law-abiding citizen of the society by subjecting them to certain punishments and at the same time giving them the required counselling and assistance to introspect and realise that their prior conduct was wrong.

The third possible purpose of punishment is prevention which aims at preventing the crime from happening at the first place.

Lastly, the fourth purpose of punishment can be retribution. This theory propounds that punishments are primarily to inflict pain on the wrongdoer so as to seek vengeance for the wrongful conduct of the criminal. This theory is based on the premise that the victim or the survivor would gain pleasure out of the pain of the wrongdoer.

But it is often noted by philosophers that there is generally a massive gap between the real and the ideal, contrary to these ideal theories of punishment.

India has emphatically argued against Pakistan for not following a due process and not treating their prisoners well in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case. But before pinpointing loopholes in the criminal justice system of other jurisdictions, we need to look into our own lock-ups.

Our criminal justice system is not able to meet any of the purposes of punishment - deterrence, rehabilitation, prevention or retribution.

Indian laws are simply not deterring individuals from indulging in criminal activities. This is due to the delays in the delivery of justice on the part of the courts. Figures reveal that nearly 3.3 crore cases are pending in the courts.

The deterrence theory becomes even weaker when the wrongdoer is an affluent person. A recent study showed that 75% of the individuals who were sentenced to death belonged to various marginalised communities whereas the rich and the affluent get away with a mere slap on the wrist.

A recent trend shows that commodification of justice is possible where the rich get away after committing crimes only because they can hire expert lawyers, furnish sophisticated evidence and pay for their bail.

The criminal justice system does not meet the purpose of rehabilitation because nearly 4,33,033 prisoners inhabit the jails. The state does not have the requisite resources to provide these inmates with the basic necessities of life and they live in pathetic conditions behind the bars.

The jails suffer from massive over-crowding. The state of mental health of these inmates is a huge concern. There were nearly 102 reported suicides in the jails in the year 2016.

The story of suffering does not end here. Even after serving their sentence, finding a job becomes a herculean task for them due to their past criminal records. The present system falls flat when it comes to serving the purpose of prevention as the data shows otherwise. The crime rate s are rising despite the existence of laws.

Archaic laws

These laws are archaic, lack implementation and are, therefore, ineffective. In addition to this, many people are not aware of the existence of these laws. This ignorance stems from illiteracy. Another reason is lack of information dissemination by the state. 

Retribution is another unachieved goal of the Indian laws. This again is due to the massive delays in the dispensation of justice.

The victim or the survivor does not gain pleasure out of the pain of the wrongdoer because by the time pain is inflicted on the wrongdoer, it is already too late. Data shows that nearly two lakh criminal cases have been pending in the courts for more than 25 years.

This delay defeats the purpose of punishment as victims lose patience and hope while standing in those long queues for justice for years altogether. 

The country immediately needs to look into the jails and see the plight of the prisoners who are being denied of their basic rights. The situation becomes even more painful due to the fact that 68% of these prisoners are actually under trial and are merely accused of being guilty and have not been proven guilty.

Our criminal justice system needs a new lease of life. There is a need for better laws and better implementation of those laws. Prisoners ought to be treated like human beings. For punishment is not to turn first-time offenders into hardcore criminals. Rather, the purpose of punishment is to kill the criminal that resides in the hearts of these criminals. 

(The writer is a student at the NLSIU, Bengaluru)

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