Rights issues of the prisoners in the Indian jails

The current context

Recently, in Mumbai’s Byculla jail female prisoners rioted against the jail administration after a female inmate, Manjula Shetye died due to torture by the latter.  Later, six jail officials accused of fatally assaulting the inmate inside the Byculla jail. An investigation is presently underway.

The episode has once again brought to the forefront the long-standing issue of pathetic conditions prevailing in the Indian jails and routine violation of human rights in these institutions, mostly at the hands of the authorities.

Conditions in the Indian jails
  1. Overcrowded: Indian jails are badly overcrowded by a ratio of 23:1. It means that 23 inmates are forced to depend on the facilities meant to support 1 inmate. The living conditions are inhuman.
  2. Unlawful discrimination: A number of studies have shown that while high-profile inmates manage to get bigger space and better facilities “for a price”; others find it difficult to even stretch their legs during night in their stinking, cramped cells. Similarly, many inmates have costly phones that they use to contact their associates in and outside the jail.
  3. Unhygienic living conditions: Toilets are not cleaned for days, and living in such close proximity to so many people has led to prisoners getting skin diseases and other contact diseases. TB is highly common among the inmates of Indian jails.
  4. Poor food: The food served in the Indian jails is usually so bad that they constitute the most frequent cause of prison rioting.
  5. Torture: In 2005, the International Red Cross reported the use of electrocution, beatings and sexual humiliation of detainees in the jail. Modes of torture that police routinely resorts to include the international model of waterboarding to the indigenous satyashodhak patta or “truth-seeking belt”. No police officer has been convicted as a result of custodial deaths due to torture.
  6. Forced labour: Inmates are frequently made to work in the jail and also at the residences of jail personnel.
  7. Sexual abuse: Female under-trials and convicts are frequently exploited sexually by jail authorities and influential people, as reported by PUCL in 2009.
  8. Unlawful killings: Brutal methods are routinely employed by the jail authorities on the inmates including firing. On October 27, 1993, the police had opened fire on Kashmiri inmates in the jail, killing five prisoners and injuring 28 others after they objected to the search of a political detainee’s mother, who had come to meet her son.
  9. Rampant suicides: According to official figures, at least 200 prisoners have committed suicide in the Indian jails in the last 10 years. This raises questions over security measures in place in the Indian prisons.
  10. Dreaded criminals running extortion and drug rackets: Jailed gangsters also collect money as ‘upkeep charge’ from newcomers without any criminal background or those who belong to relatively less notorious gangs.
The issues involved
  • Most of the inmates are just under-trails, spending long years in the jail due to judicial delays.
  • Jails are the incarceration and correction facilities mandated the law of the land. They can not be places where basic human rights can routinely be violated and human dignity is crushed with impunity.
  • Torture, discrimination, killings etc. are all grave criminal acts and can not be permitted in any law abiding society. Such criminal acts within a law mandated place pose serious challenge to the rule of law.
  • In the words of the Justice (late) JS Verma, “The police must be made to realise that they are prosecutors, not persecutors. The brutality they display comes from the fact that they perform their functions as persecutors.”
  • The philosophy of punishment had shifted from the retributive to the reformative and Indian jails have to align their priorities accordingly.
  • The basic thing to remember here is that the dignity of an individual is a matter of concern for society as a whole.
Bilaspur Model Jail, Himachal Pradesh: A template for a reformist jail?

The open-air model jail in Himachal Pradesh’s Bilaspur town is unique in the way it treats its inmates.

Dozens of its convicts leave their cells in the morning and go out to work in the town – as masons, labourers, salesmen, accountants, and similar.

No police personnel accompany them, and they are free to work until sunset.

Surprisingly, there has been only one instance in the last 50 years when an inmate did not return to the prison in the evening. He was later caught.

Several ex-inmates of Bilaspur Model Jail say that this jail changed the meaning of life for them. The atmosphere here inspired them to become a good, law-abiding citizen.