Preventing death in custody

September 27, 2016 12:07 am | Updated November 17, 2021 02:34 am IST

While the liberty of a person in custody can be curtailed according to ‘procedures established by law’, it cannot be stretched to extinguish life.

Seven weeks after a > 25-year-old inmate allegedly hanged himself in the Puzhal Central Prison in Chennai, P. Ramkumar, the sole accused in the murder of Infosys techie Swathi, also allegedly committed suicide in the same prison by “pulling and biting into a live electric wire”.

The Puzhal prison complex was inaugurated in 2006 by the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, with the promise of making it a model for reform. It has become notorious, however, for being a den of drugs and a place where mobile phones are frequently seized.

The Puzhal prison isn’t alone.

From 1995 to 2014, 999 suicides were reported inside Indian prisons. Tamil Nadu alone has seen 141 of them. The State houses less than 4 per cent of the country’s prisoners, yet it accounts for 14 per cent of suicides inside prisons. With such a poor track record, the State machinery should at least deliberate possible solutions.

Is Tamil Nadu the bad apple or is the entire orchard rotten? Data show that in the last 20 years, three inmates on average have been found dead daily in Indian prisons. In 2014, there were five deaths every day, so 35 deaths in a typical week. Two of these deaths were suicides. In the same period, the death rate inside prisons rose by 42 per cent. Ninety per cent of these deaths were recorded as ‘natural’, but what constitutes ‘natural’ in a custodial set-up is questionable.

Violation of rights The numbers show that the prison department is ill-equipped to protect the health and safety of inmates. Little public scrutiny in jails provides the possibility of violation of basic rights. It is only when violations result in deaths that questions are raised, and even then only cursorily.

This perfunctory attention to prisons helps overlook the fact that deaths are the consequence of the everyday reality of prison life. Inmates live in despair of little or no contact with the outside world, are denied the basic desires to eat or wear clothes of their choice, to forge relationships. They wait for basic medical needs, their movements are restricted, and they are frustrated as they know nothing about their cases. As they are not taken to court often, they miss the chance of meeting a judge, their lawyers, and families. There is also lack of a mechanism to hear their complaints.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. As an undercover operation in Uttar Pradesh’s Kasna Jail showed recently, abuse takes place in prisons. Extortions, corruption, and torture are common.

The only way to thwart what goes on in these institutions is to make them accountable. Prison monitors are mandated to regularly visit jails, listen to prisoners’ grievances, identify areas of concern, and seek resolution. These visitors include magistrates and judges, State human rights institutions, and non-official visitors drawn from society.

However, an upcoming Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative study (CHRI), ‘Looking into the haze — a study on prison monitoring in India’, shows that not even 1 per cent of Indian jails are monitored. In Tamil Nadu, according to recent media reports, most prisons await appointment of non-official visitors. As per National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures for 2014, just 500 inspections were made across the 136 jails in Tamil Nadu, perhaps by the official visitors. This means that there were less than four inspections per jail in an entire year.

Surveillance The Supreme Court last year ordered the Centre and the States to install CCTV cameras in all the prisons in the country. CCTV cameras serve two purposes: they bring on record incidents that could otherwise be suppressed, and play a preventive role in violation of rights, as the fear of facing consequences for the same would increase under vigilance.

However, Ramkumar’s death remains a mystery despite the Puzhal prison installing CCTV cameras. This is because the alleged suicide occurred near a water pot in the dispensary block where no cameras were placed. So, while the court’s order was a step in the right direction, it fell short by not formulating guidelines for implementation.

Suicide is a critical problem in prison complexes — in the last 20 years, the suicide rate (suicides per lakh population) in prisons is recorded at 15.4. A person is 1.5 times more likely to kill himself or herself inside jail than outside it. In Tamil Nadu prisons, the suicide rate is higher than 40.

Providing counselling to inmates is crucial for them to deal with the ordeal they undergo in custody. But are prisons prepared for this? Tamil Nadu prisons have only sanctioned 105 correctional staff. Less than half the positions are filled. Out of the 13 psychologists sanctioned, only eight have been hired. With around 16,000 prisoners, this translates to one psychologist for every 2,000 inmates.

After Ramkumar’s death, the DG (Prisons) announced that a magisterial inquiry will be ordered. But does that mean anything? The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has expressed concern in the past about post-mortem reports “appearing to be doctored due to influence”. There is no information in the public domain about the details of these reports, whether the magistrate visited the death scene, what evidence was gathered, the time taken for the inquiry, the outcome, and whether prison officials were charged or found guilty.

Saving lives The prison department is mandated to report all cases of custodial death to the NHRC within 24 hours of their occurrence. But the prison department data collated by the NCRB and the NHRC data don’t match. Also, almost half of the unnatural deaths in prisons are reported as ‘others’ by the NCRB. It is important that these ‘others’ be demystified.

While the liberty of a person inside custody can be curtailed according to “procedures established by law”, it cannot be stretched to extinguish life itself. The NHRC has repeatedly issued guidelines to prevent and respond to custodial deaths. It is time for the State governments to start taking these guidelines seriously. If the state works to promote communication between the inmate and his family and lawyer, increase conjugal visits, ensure adequate trained prison staff, and open up the prison to civil society, we might be able to save some lives. If not, we know who is responsible for the next suicide inside our jails.

Raja Bagga is Project Officer, Prison Reforms Programme, CHRI.

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