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State of Prisons: OVERHAUL LAWS, ADMINISTRATION By Dhurjati Mukherjee, 15 Sept, 2014 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 15 September 2014

State of Prisons


By Dhurjati Mukherjee


The Supreme Court’s recent order seeking release of undertrials who have served half their maximum term without trial, should be seen as a blessing in disguise for prison administrators. It is no secret that in India, jails are inadequately administered owing to overcrowding and under staffing. This apart, these are plagued with extortion, drug and sexual abuse of the prisoners, by both inmates and jail officials. 


The problem of overcrowding is concentrated in a few but densely populated States like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. As per Home Ministry’s data, in UP overcrowding is close to 32,000 prisoners when cumulative overcrowding across the country stands at over 42,000. The 65 jails of the State having capacity of a little over 47,000 have crammed over 80,000 prisoners.


Similarly, Chhattisgarh is another laggard State with its prisons overcrowded by over 9000 inmates against a capacity of around 6000. The well-known Tihar jail of Delhi, where many VIPs end up with five-star facilities, has almost twice the number of inmates against its capacity.  


However, there has been some improvement in Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Odisha. Most of the changes came in the past one decade when the UPA government launched a seven-year scheme of Rs 1800 crores for modernization of prisons across the country. Moreover, between 2002 and 2012, the number of jails increased to 1394 with the capacity improving to over 343,000. But this is not enough. According to available figures, by end-2012, there were around 385,000 inmates in these jails but the figure presently would be around 420,000. 


It is a fact that laws passed over a century ago continue to govern the administration of prisons. As is known, legislation on prisons is included in the State list and the governments have the power to control and regulate these. As a result, prisons across the country vary in their rules and models. And all State laws can be traced to three main laws that govern the administration of prisons in the country – the Prisons Act of 1894, the Prisoners Act of 1900 and the Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, 1977. 


Experts believe and quite rightly that there is an imperative need to overhaul the laws governing prison administration. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and many such organizations have been working in Third World countries to implement the recommendations of the All India Jail Reforms Committee of 1980-83.


The committee, headed by Justice AN Mullah, studied the treatment of prisoners and observed: “if prisoners are treated humanely according to set rules and are provided with incentives for showing good conduct and discipline, the need for enforcing prison discipline through prison punishments will reduce”. It also drafted a model prison Bill based on the standards recommended by the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners, 1955.  However, not much headway has been made yet in carrying out its recommendations and transforming prisons.     


The new concept of prisons the world over is to make them centres of reform, whereby the convict undergoes a change and eventually becomes a responsible member of society. Though there has been some changes here and there in some prisons across the country and rehabilitation programmes introduced, including counselling, vocational training etc. much remains to be done.


Only when leading political personalities are arrested, their stay is made comfortable and all facilities, which are not in tune with established rules of prisons, provided. This is not done for low level political prisoners and other undertrials. And for most others, the state of some prisons is indeed horrible, to say the least.  


In 1987 the Government appointed the Justice Krishna Iyer Committee to undertake a study of the situation of women prisoners in the country and accordingly the first women jail was established at Yarwada, Maharashtra followed by a few others. But though some of its recommendations were adhered to, there have been reports of women being subjected to sexual abuse and molestation while in custody by jail officials. However, these women don’t speak out for fear of being penalized.       


Under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, fortunately the States of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have done some good work in encouraging borstal system through a well-planned strategy where homes have been set up to reform young criminals. This was in keeping with the UN Standard Minimum Rule, which made it mandatory for providing separate residence for young and child prisoners so they could be treated better.


The increase in crimes has obviously resulted in prisons being overcrowded and, as a result, proper facilities are amiss. Moreover, the Central government has never considered providing adequate funds to transform State prisons to model prisons. Most of the State governments have been suffering from severe resource crunch and do not consider it important to invest in prisons.      


The recent controversy regarding rights for all classes and categories of political prisoners has triggered off a debate as those arrested for ultra-left activities were not given proper status and facilities. A Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP) was formed in 2008 to make the Government realize the urgency of bringing out legislation on recognizing the category of such prisoners as per internationally recognized practices and norms in accordance with UN Covenant on Prisoners.


It further pointed out that prisoners from the Muslim community or Kashmiri Muslim prisoners, the Kamtapuris, the people of Manipur, Assam, Tamil nationalists, the Maoists, the Nagas, Bodos etc, have been facing the worst kinds of humiliation and torture in prisons and needed immediate rectification. The Committee made a detailed charter of demands, most of which need to be considered seriously.


The jail manuals and the laws governing administration of prisons should be strictly implemented and reformed, wherever necessary, keeping in view the changes occurring in society. Prisoners need to be treated more humanely and given a chance to transform themselves by engaging them in various productive activities other than imparting teaching on moral and ethical values.      


Efforts also have to be made for structural changes in prison administration so that better facilities are provided, specially related to living conditions, health, hygiene and recreation. More so as health facilities are rather poor. Around 1400 inmates died in 2010 alone and the main cause were diseases like malaria, RB and typhoid, all of which are curable. The per capita cost for each prisoner must be re-worked and in tune with market costs and funds arranged accordingly.      


There is also a need to formulate a self employment plan which they could pursue. Meaningful work after being released would discourage them from anti-social activities. If vocational training is imparted during the sentence period, they could continue doing the same on release with funds, made available by the State and loans from banks. The primary objective of the State has to be geared towards reforming the mindset and behaviour of the under trials and prisoners so that they can join the mainstream of society as responsible citizens.      


There is an imperative need to reform prisons as also their administration and functioning for which necessary funds need to be allotted. Perhaps, even private-public partnership could be contemplated in running the prisons to bring in more efficiency in the system. A fresh policy in place could thus be followed judiciously by the States. ---INFA    


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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