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Indian prisons — rhetoric and reality

THE PORTRAYAL of prisons in our reel world is that of a four walled, impossible to exit station. It is often a depiction of two contrasting facets: one showing that the convict is a dreaded criminal who is just too reluctant to change, and the other demonstrating lots of innocent masses caught in a crime jam by an archaic criminal justice system. While on one hand prisons are shown as places with dehumanising conditions, at other times they are painted as huge fortified walls of concrete with abundant space for song and dance where there is no trace of disease and filth. But in contrast, the grave reality of prisons and their state is immensely numb and not dealt with in a broader term with reference to the purpose they were construed.

Old archaic laws

According to the Prison Statistics Report 2000, India has about 2,48,115 prisoners in total to the available capacity of 2,11,720; Uttar Pradesh topping it with 49,885 inmates. Prisons in India are still governed by the century old Prisons Act 1894 and the Prisoners Act 1900. The application of a century old law in the changed socio-political scenario is absolutely bizarre, and is out of tune with the entirely transformed picture of human society. During the past some decades several organisations, intellectuals and committees set up for jail reforms have expressed their views on the importance of reviewing the Act which is not comprehensive.

The new thinking on prisons has been duly summarised by the dictum that convicted persons go to prison as punishment and not for punishment (Charles Shobraj vs. Superintendent, Tihar jail, AIR 1978, SC 1514). The condition of a substantially large number of prisons continues to be bad, dehumanising and violative of the residuary rights of inmates. There has been a plethora of recommendations for the improvement of these conditions both from recommendatory bodies and from the apex judiciary but a large chunk of these recommendations has not seen the light of the day.

Overcrowding is the greatest practical hindrance to efforts of reforming the Indian prison system. Some prisons house as much as three times more inmates than their capacity. Prisons in general are housed in dilapidated age-old buildings with its management in the hands of an untrained, disgruntled, over-worked and insufficient staff. Constraints of inappropriate working conditions weigh over opportunities for correctional work.

Inhuman conditions

During my recent visit to a prison, I saw what I had never expected to see. Even though the building stood fortified, it did ask for much do-up. The pillars were old enough to have seen four generations of prisoners. The barracks looked unkempt and least maintained. One single cell housed three times the capacity making it too uncomfortable for the inmates to even move about, apart from the fact that they slept in shifts. Those small coops, called cells, contained people from all walks of crime — petty thieves, murderers, bride burners, scamsters, anti-socials and a whole sty of undertrials.

The most evident showcase was the lot who thought they were at the wrong address. When I asked one of the inmates what he was there for, he said "I don't know, I was having my lunch at home when they arrested me on the ground of murder." Who the victim was, he never knew. One of the prison staff said that cases like these were rare.

The next corner of the prison housed women prisoners. According to the Prison Statistics Report 2000, women inmates constitute 3.42 per cent of the total inmate population in the country. In India social customs make women ex-offenders more vulnerable to suspicion and rejection. The stigma of having been in prison has more adverse after-effects for women than for men. They are always looked down upon by everyone — their family members, the prison staff, as well as society. They are forced to adapt and survive in this unfriendly and indecent ambience.

Women are disowned by their families and there is always lack of a helping guardian. As a result many of them are confined as undertrials for want of a surety. Being uneducated and lacking legal awareness they are often given unduly long detentions.

Out of the total inmates just a few seemed to repent their wrongdoings and were seriously exploring legal ways to exit for good. They consulted private lawyers who charged hefty and unaffordable fees and did the least to solve anything. The lawyers commissioned under free legal aid never visited and never cared for the inmates.

The condition of prison staff is none the better. They have a long story about their own deplorable existence. Most of them have been stagnating in the same position for more than ten years without any opening for promotion or change. Due to terrible paucity of staff, those supposed to be on security duties are on ministerial tasks. Salaries and other service conditions are unjustifiably lower than those of their counterparts in other sister organisations. Even training which is so essential for jobs in correctional institutions is conspicuous by its absence in most cadres.

It is time to think of better networking, effective prison reforms and their true application, education and overall societal contribution to the improvement of prison conditions. We must seek solutions both in the prisons and outside in society. Public funds now being wasted on unhealthy institutions called prisons need to be better spent on sensible pay-offs.


Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi

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