Whether it is suicide or homicide, the death of Ram Singh — the main accused in the Delhi rape case of December 2012 — inside Tihar Jail is a damning indictment of the functioning of the prison authorities. There were warning signals, early on. Ram Singh and the other accused were put on special watch, or suicide watch, after they stopped interacting with other inmates. But despite the checks and watches, Ram Singh was found dead hanging on the grille of his cell on Monday. The guard posted outside his cell, which he shared with several other inmates, did not seem to have a clue about the death. The inescapable conclusion is that there was little or no monitoring of the cell. Ram Singh’s family and his lawyers have raised the possibility of murder. There had been complaints of ill-treatment at the hands of other inmates. Sexual offenders are easy targets for fellow prisoners, who often gang up against them with the connivance of jail staff. Because of the social stigma involved with sex crimes, prison authorities sometimes turn a blind eye to complaints from those accused of sexual offences. A prisoner with suicidal tendencies is usually not kept in solitary confinement for fear it could result in a downward spiral of depression. But great care has to be taken in screening the fellow inmates, and in preventing access to instruments that could aid suicide. In the case of Ram Singh, who was found hanging with his own clothes, it is not immediately clear whether all possible precautions were taken. Clearly, a full-fledged inquiry into the circumstances of his death is necessary to fix responsibility on jail staff and senior officials.

The life of an undertrial or convict is the responsibility of the prison authorities. In the absence of ownership of such responsibility, the whole criminal justice system becomes vulnerable. As the report of the All India Committee on Jail Reforms has pointed out, prisoners have the right to human dignity, the right to integrity of the body, and immunity from repression and abuse whether by custodial staff or fellow-prisoners. Only a comprehensive inquiry can reveal whether Ram Singh was treated with dignity in the prison both by jail staff and by other inmates. As investigations are complete, the Delhi rape case does seem an open-and-shut case with the identification and arrest of the accused. Ram Singh’s death, therefore, may not have implications for the conduct of the case and the trial of the other accused. However, this death should provoke changes in some of the processes and procedures in jail administration and bring amendments to the jail manuals to guarantee and ensure the rights of prisoners as human beings.

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