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Updated: May 17, 2013 12:04 IST

Dignity behind bars

Shashank Singh
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Security cameras installed at the Coimbatore Central Prison. Photo: K. Ananthan
The Hindu
Security cameras installed at the Coimbatore Central Prison. Photo: K. Ananthan

Despite being a signatory to ICCPR, securing prisoners’ rights remains a distant priority for India

The recent fatal attack on Sanaullah Ranjay at Kot Balwal jail in Jammu has once again underlined the larger issue of prison reforms and prisoners’ rights. Sections of the civil society have been struggling to get the attention of law makers to bring to light the pitiable conditions of the Indian prisons. 

The Supreme Court was quick to respond to the murderous attack on the Pakistani prisoner, reprimanding the prison authorities for their failure to prevent the incident, since just over a week before the tragic event, Sarabjit Singh, an Indian prisoner languishing in Pakistani prison for over a decade, was attacked in the same manner.  

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the pathetic condition of Indian prisons is widely known and one does not need to venture beyond the Capital to comprehend the situation. The Tihar jail in Delhi is the largest prison in South Asia. The prison lacks infrastructure and basic hygiene is often overlooked. The cells are overcrowded with under-trials and convicted prisoners housed together — a gross violation of international human rights rules.

Article 10 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which India is a signatory, says that the convicted persons have to be separated from the under-trials. Again, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is an inalienable right offered to all persons, including those imprisoned.

Talking about her recent visit to Tihar, Aimy Shukla of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) said the norm of segregation is violated regularly; she, however, did not blame the authorities as the premises are awfully overcrowded.

According to Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the slow disposal rate of cases by the judiciary leads to the under-trials being imprisoned for longer periods which leads to overcrowding and makes segregation difficult. Consultation papers by the HRLN claim that around 80 per cent of the prisoners are under-trials.

The second problem which reinforces the first is the lack of legal aid to prisoners. Article 14 (Right to Equality) and Article 21 (Right to Life and Liberty) of the Constitution guarantee’s legal aid to all under-trials and prisoners but sadly the system is just not geared to meet the demand. Article 39-A ordains promotion of justice on the basis of equality of opportunity. But the problem is an overwhelming number of prisoners are unlettered and come from economically weaker sections. These prisoners are not even aware of their rights.

The third problem is class discrimination among the prisoners. While equality was established under Article 14 of the Constitution, and one assumes that a place like prison which is directly run under statutes, this would be endorsed by them, yet the prejudice based on socio-economic background of the prisoners is all-pervasive. The Supreme Court in Prem Shankar Shukla vs Delhi Administration 1980 AIR 1535 reproached the jail authorities for selectively handcuffing prisoners based on their economic background.   

Unfortunately, prisoners’ rights have not been a priority in the criminal jurisprudence. Suhas Chakma of Asian Centre for Human Rights says, “The biggest problem in the prisons is the lack of external overview. This has been delegated to the National Human Rights Commission, but they are not able to visit more than five to six prisons a year. There is a need to strengthen bodies like NHRC.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Justice Bhagwati and Justice Krishna Iyer took it on themselves to set precedents that helped establish and uphold prisoners’ rights.

Thus cases such as Gopalanachari vs State of Kerala 1980 SCC 649 which put strict parameters for preventive detention, Citizens for Democracy vs State of Assam (1995) 3 SCC 743 which dealt with handcuffing of inmates admitted in hospitals, Hussainara Khatoon & Ors vs Home Secretary State of Bihar AIR 1979 SC 1360 where the SC held that if the offence is bailable, the arrested person should be released if they are willing to give bail, etc. were brought to light. With the concept of Public Interest Litigations being introduced, much relief was offered to the prisoners; however the dark underbelly of the prisons must be the focus of reforms. 

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