Sunday Anchor

Don’t prisoners have rights?

The National Human Rights Commission has made some key recommendations for prison reform. File Photo

The National Human Rights Commission has made some key recommendations for prison reform. File Photo   | Photo Credit: Saurabh Das

The government is slowly implementing some of the prison reforms suggested by human rights advocates

Jail breaks, prison crimes, high-profile prisoners, and reformist jailers all make great movies, but they also raise serious concerns. High-security prisoners like Ajmal Kasab or master trickster Natwarlal or suave criminal Charles Sobhraj, who literally walked out of tight security Tihar Jail in Delhi after serving doped sweets to prison officers, are incidents that have over the years posed key questions relating to prison security.

Last week, Tihar Jail came under the scanner when the police found a dreaded gangster in possession of a mobile phone. He was reportedly using it to make extortionist calls to city businessmen and talk to other gangsters. As many as 33 phones were recovered from Tihar prisoners last year, and jammers were installed to counter the problem. If such a serious breach of security can happen in Tihar, it’s easy to imagine worse from other jails across the country.

Overcrowding and large numbers of undertrial prisoners are two nagging problems in our prisons. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) records, in 2013, the total number of prisoners was 4,11,992, of which a startling 2,78,503 were undertrial prisoners. Delay in providing justice, inadequate court infrastructure, and inaccessibility of a large number of prisoners to legal help accentuate the insensitivity of authorities and law enforcing agencies towards prisoners. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said recently that despite prisons being a State subject, the Centre would provide funds for modernisation of jails. Accordingly, the Centre provided Rs. 1,800 crore to States and Union Territories. The second phase of the programme starts in 2015-16.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has made some key recommendations for prison reform. These include replacing the 1894 Prison Act with a new one, amending prison manuals keeping human rights in mind, reducing overcrowding, one of the biggest problems in most prisons, shifting foreign nationals to detention centres from prisons after their sentence is completed, till they are deported to their respective countries.

NHRC Chairperson Justice K. G. Balakrishnan has suggested that prison manuals should be uniform so that prisoners across States are treated the same. He has also recommended that after filing chargesheets in courts, undertrial prisoners should be released on bail to reduce overcrowding. He said a large number of courts must be set up to clear cases fast so that undertrial prisoners did not stay in jails beyond a year. NHRC member Justice Cyriac Joseph said that the prison should be perceived as “a home for corrective and reformative custody and care”.

The recommendations have been circulated to the States and Union Territories, and the Home Ministry has already set up a committee of officers to suitably amend the Model Prison Manual, 2003. Ministry officials said that some States Union Territories such as Arunachal Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Bihar, Goa, Kerala and Sikkim have taken steps to reform their prison manual but a lot still needs to be done.

The Home Minister has admitted that there has been very little improvement in prisons and that they remain, by and large, in pathetic condition. Reiterating the Centre’s commitment to the NHRC recommendations, Mr. Singh has said he will visit some prisons to check on their implementation.

In the past, the Centre had set up various committees such as the All India Prison Reforms Committee (1980) under Justice A N Mulla (retd.), the R.K. Kapoor Committee (1986) and the Justice Krishna Iyer Committee (1987) to make suggestions for improving prison conditions and administration. But progress has been slow and unimpressive. Between 2002 and 2009, too, the Centre had supported States in prison modernisation, with 127 new jails, 1,579 additional barracks in existing prisons, and 8,658 staff quarters constructed. Funds of Rs. 1,347 crore were provided, with a major share going to U.P., Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 11:57:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/dont-prisoners-have-rights/article7019102.ece

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