The Supreme Court has thrown open the door to the legislature to “ponder” over the idea of placing convicts under house arrest to avoid overcrowding of prisons.
A Bench of Justices U.U. Lalit and K.M. Joseph, in a judgment, highlights the “alarming” statistics of prisons. The suggestion is relevant considering the spread of COVID-19. A few days ago, a Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana issued a series of directions, including the grant of interim bail and parole to prisoners to decongest prisons.
Justice Joseph said the occupancy rate in prisons climbed to 118.5% in 2019. The court refers to the National Crime Records Bureau’s figures of 2019 to show that 18,86,092 inmates were admitted in jails. The number of undertrial prisoners in 2019 was 3,30,487, which in fact constituted 69.05% of the total number of prisoners. Secondly, a very large sum (₹6818.1 crore) was the budget on prisons. The “tremendous” overcrowding of prisons and the huge budget were both “relevant in the context of the possibilities that house arrest offer”, the court noted.
It concluded that “as regards post conviction cases we would leave it open to the legislature to ponder over its employment. We have indicated the problems of overcrowding of prisons and the cost to the State in maintaining prisons”.
Navlakha’s plea for default bail
The 206-page judgment was based on a plea for default bail filed by activist Gautam Navlakha on the ground that he had spent several days in house arrest.
In the judgment, Justice Joseph elaborates the rather “long” history of house arrests starting with that of St. Paul the Apostle in Rome. Drawing vignettes from ‘A Brief History of House Arrest and Electronic Monitoring’ by J. Robert Lilly and Richard A. Ball, he refers to how “societies found in Poland, South Korea, India, and the Soviet Union are known to employ ‘house arrest’ primarily to deal with troublesome political dissenters”. Justice Joseph details how ‘house arrest’ in India has its roots in laws providing for preventive detention.
He then moves on to how ankle bracelets have become an indispensable appendage to monitor compliance of house arrests in foreign countries. He said how these bracelets were the product of an inspiration of a New Mexico district court judge “who read a comic strip where Spiderman was being tracked by a transmitter fixed to his wrist”.