Prison Reforms

The Ministry of Home Affairs is said to have finalised a comprehensive Model Prisons Act 2023 which can serve as a guiding document for states for adoption in their jurisdiction. It is based on the basis of a draft prepared by the Bureau of Police Research and Development. Only a few weeks ago Prime Minister while addressing the national annual police-meet suggested prison reforms to improve jail management and repealing obsolete criminal laws. But he remained silent on the applicability of notorious detention laws he is now utilising indiscriminately to increase jail population. The present Prisons Act 1894 is almost 130 years old. Indian prisons mostly built in the British period are in dilapidated conditions. They are actually living hells created to dehumanise human beings. Lack of space, inadequate ventilation, pitiable sanitation and unhygienic atmosphere make living conditions deplorable. 149 jails in the country are overcrowded by more than 100 percent. It’s a nightmare for the prison dwellers. Then 65 percent of prisoners are under-trials. The share of people awaiting trial or sentencing is extremely high by any standards, not to speak of international standards. It is 11 percent in the UK, 20 percent in the US and 29 percent in France. The ratio between prison staff and prison population is 1:7. As a result recurring violence and other criminal activities are rampant in Indian jails. And administrative corruption only adds fuel to fire. So hardened criminals have no problem in running their bloody business from solitary cells.

Jails, euphemistically called correctional centres, are in reality torture chambers. Prisoners are subjected to inhuman psychological and physical stress. The same pre-independence tradition continues unabated in post-independence era. The brown sahibs are no less ruthless than their white predecessors. In 2015, a total of 1584 prisoners died in jails. A large number of the deaths in custody were from natural and easily curable causes aggravated by virtual absence of health service. What is available in jail clinics is just apology of medicare. Labour is extracted from prisoners without paying proper wages. According to Human Rights Watch socio-economically disadvantaged prisoners are deprived of basic human dignity. Even prisons are not free from class discrimination. The Privileged get all the privileges but the poor are treated badly.

The issue of jail reforms is long overdue. The persons in power have been talking of it for long without doing anything concrete. Various Committees and Commissions have been constituted by the state governments as well as the government of India to study and make recommendations for improving the prison conditions and administration. But reports and suggestions are not for implementation. They are gathering dust. For the authorities it is business as usual.

The Mulla Committee way back in 1983 recommended among other things to set up a National Prison Commission to oversee modernisation of the prison system in India. A major suggestion of the Mulla Committee was to reduce the number of under-trials to bare minimum and keep them separate from the convicts. The opposite is happening; under-trial prisoners are increasing in leaps and bounds. What the Modi dispensation is doing was previously done by the Congress government. India is unique in the sense that it is an elected autocracy and this autocracy cannot function without putting dissenters of every shade behind bars. The Krishna Iyer Committee in 1987 looked into prison conditions and gave special emphasis on women prisoners. A lot has been written about the abuses, including sexual abuses women prisoners face but nothing has changed since then. Mary Taylor, a British citizen who was arrested in connection with a ‘naxalite’ case made a vivid and emotional account on prison conditions and women prisoners in particular in her classic treatise ‘My Years in an Indian Prison’. The Justice Amitava Roy Committee made some special observations in respect of overcrowding and release of petty offenders on personal bond if they fail to arrange surety. As for legal aid to prisoners the less said the better; the powerless and voiceless as well simply don’t get any legal help. It remains to be seen whether the proposed Model Act can accommodate even a few suggestions made by the previous committees.

What is urgently needed is mass movement for unconditional release of all political prisoners and innocent people who have been incarcerated under false and fabricated charges. Barring a few human rights and civil liberties bodies, no political party is interested in making prison an issue in their poll manifestos and campaigns. Only after lifting of Emergency there was an opposition- initiated move to make political prisoners free. The bitter truth is opposition parties too are ruling parties in some states; they too need ‘cages’ to silence their critics.

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Vol 55, No. 48, May 28 - Jun 3, 2023