By Dr. Oishee Mukherjee
The Supreme Court has favoured setting up of ‘open jails’, where inmates will not be confined within prison walls and allowed to live with family members during the day and earn their livelihood. Holding the need of the criminal justice system to be based on reformation and rehabilitation of criminals, a two-judge bench recently stated that the State governments must take a humane approach towards prisoners and accordingly directed the Centre to convene a meeting with the chiefs of prisons of all States and UTs in this regard.
The apex court found that prisoners were living in inhuman conditions in overcrowded jails with virtually no basic facilities, and many of them were committing suicide and dying unnatural death.
One may mention here that the apex court a few months back, acting on a suo motu cognisance of a letter written to the Court by Former Chief Justice of India R C Lahoti directed the Centre and States to carry out a series of radical prison reforms, including allowing prisoners telephone and video conferencing contact with families and lawyers.
The intervention of the court has been necessitated in view of widespread reports of torture of prisoners and even a large number of their unnatural deaths. The bench presented certain directives including immediate payment of compensation to the families of 551 prisoners who died unnatural deaths between 2012 and 2015.
The bench of Justices Madan B. Lokur and Deepak Gupta rightly pointed out: “No state government can shirk its duties and responsibilities for providing better facilities to prisoners. If a State government is unable to do so, it should be far more circumspect in arresting and detaining persons, particularly under trail prisoners who constitute the vast majority of those in judicial custody”.
Among the directives issued by the Bench, mention may be made of the following: High Court chief justices should register suo motu PIL to identify the next of kin of the prisoners who died unnatural deaths, according to the NCRB; States should conduct training and sensitization programmes for senior prison officials on their duties and responsibilities as well as those of prisoners; Visits by prisoners’ families should be encouraged and extending time and frequency of such meetings may be considered; Studies should be conducted to assess prison conditions and facilities; Proper medical assistance should be made available to prisoners; and a board of visitors, including non-official visitors, should be constituted so that eminent members of society can participate in initiating prison reforms.
The concept of ‘open jails’ and ‘semi open’ jails in vogue in many States, should be explored further. These come after the National Policy Prison Reforms & Correctional Administration of 2007 outlined several measures, specially improvement in overcrowding and unhygienic conditions, and also sanctioned around Rs 4000 crores though not much change was visible.
As is well known, for quite a few decades prisons are regarded as reform centres the world over and also in our country. But reports indicate that the task of reforming is not being done in a proper manner. While lack of adequate resources may be a constraint, the lack of will and dedication of both politicians and bureaucrats remains the other problem. Prison officials treat all inmates as criminals without understanding the nature of the crimes and the motivation thereof.
Let us take the example of women being tortured, physically assaulted and also forced to have sex with customers which some are not willing to accept and end up with the former killing their husbands. This is a peculiar situation in a country, fraught with poverty and squalor, on the one hand, and alcoholism, on the other. If women refuse to pay for alcohol and gambling expenses of their husbands and in resisting this, the husband gets killed, should it be treated as a murder?
Moreover, as per the Supreme Court guidelines, children in prisons are to have separate accommodation and should not share cells with female inmates who are not their mothers. They should also not be exposed to women who use abusive or foul language, behave violently or might be dangerous. In India, incarcerated parents are collateral convicts. In jails, a child is treated just like an undertrial or a convict, according to lawyers of the Human Rights Law Network, and this needs to change immediately.
It is indeed distressing to note that most Indian prisoners do not have a separate unit for mothers and their children, so they are often housed with other adult offenders, including women convicted of having committed violent crimes. This obviously raises child protection issues and goes against the concept of prisons being reform centres. Added to this is the fact about inadequate diet, medical care, recreational facilities and educational facilities that children should have by law.
Though there are different classes of prisoners, their treatment leaves much to be desired. Overcrowding and good living conditions has to be ensured at the very outset. There is also need to induct sociologists and psychiatrists to regularly interact with certain section of prisoners so as to reform them. Sustained counselling and trying to understand their problems is imperative on a sustained basis.
Leaving security aspect with prison officials, the government could consider, on an experimental basis, handing over training and handling prisoners to well-established civil society groups, who work at the grass-root and have experience of understanding people and their problems. They would definitely treat prisoners in a better way and bring about the much needed transformation in behavior patterns of those who were forced to towards criminality.
It would be better to emulate examples of how prisons are run in Western countries and the methods of reform undertaken by them. Though skill development is being conducted in Indian prisons, the government would need to allocate more resources to prisons so as to change the face of these establishments. Also specialised advanced skill training to certain sections of prisoners as also cultural affairs training, specially to women inmates, may be organized on a regular basis.
The whole approach has to change of prison officials being reformers rather than policing. There has to be communitarian feeling and love and friendship among inmates and also with the prison staff. This bondage is unfortunately lacking in society as a result of which anti-social and criminal activities have been on the rise. If fellow feeling is inculcated among prisoners, it’s after effects would be helpful in transforming society.
Finally it needs to be stated that in trying to improve prison conditions, it is necessary to address the low personnel-population ratio compared to countries that have more effective justice delivery system by filling up vacancies. As stated earlier, departments of correctional services should be made stronger with involvement of voluntary organisations for which adequate resources need to be provided. Moreover, as pointed out in the National Policy, a decade back, overcrowding and unhygienic conditions still remain.
Though much has changed over the years, the concept of prisons being reform centres have to be inculcated among the officials. For this, extensive training needs to be undertaken by agencies like the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) or by voluntary organisations. The housing pattern, food, skill development classes and recreational pattern need to be framed and implemented in proper manner in the coming years. — INFA