Justice within prisons

DESPITE LANDMARK JUDGMENTS by the Supreme Court in the 1990s that spelt out the norms of humane and fair procedures of arrest, the track record of the police continues to be marked by disregard for legal niceties and human rights laws. Execution of arrests without warrants and failure to produce detenus before the magistrate within 24 hours thereafter are habitual violations the police commit with impunity. The lot of the population within prisons is equally appalling, notwithstanding the apex court's sustained intervention for nearly two decades. According to a study conducted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), the system of prison visitors has been rendered, by and large, defunct. The study points out, in particular, that the appointment of Non-Official Visitors, who are supposed to be socially conscious and eminent citizens, is often highly politicised. The CHRI blames the general state of affairs on the intransigent attitude of prison officials and a lack of adequate training for Visitors. However, prison manuals vest elaborate authority in them so as to ensure transparency and accountability in the functioning of jail officials. Visitors could keep a tab on the provision to inmates of nutritious food, decent surroundings, avenues for the acquisition and advancement of basic skills, work, wages, security against recidivism, scope for moral and intellectual growth, leisure and recreation. Revitalising the mechanism of Non-Official Visitors is therefore of the utmost urgency considering the vital role it can play in creating a more humane atmosphere within jails.

Way back in the 1980s, in a commentary on conditions within jails, the A.N. Mulla Committee observed that the need was to protect detenus from exposure to the harmful effects of prison life. Its criticism does not appear to warrant much revision twenty years down the line, except for small advances in terms of remedial and therapeutic interventions for the benefit of inmates. Hardened criminals, remand prisoners, under-trials and other detenus accused of petty crime — all continue to be lodged under the same roof. Such an arrangement breeds a socially unhealthy influence on inmates and could even produce disastrous results. Thus the segregation of different categories of prisoners is an imperative. Moreover, according to the National Human Rights Commission, as on June 2002, under-trials constituted 75 per cent of the population in jails. If the indiscriminate use of the powers of arrest accounts for much of this malaise, a good part of the problem relates to the failings of the subordinate judiciary in checking this misuse and in resisting pulls and pressures. This situation is in itself a serious cause for concern; it contributes substantially to the overcrowding of prisons by more than 30 per cent of their maximum capacity. There is also an urgent need for closer introspection on the vexed issue of judicial delays. In the absence of a humane and reformative policy on handing down sentences in India, the utility of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958, is limited.

According to the National Bureau of Crime Records, India registers five million crimes annually. Against this backdrop, the extent of adherence to human rights by the criminal justice administration ought to receive much higher priority than is generally recognised. Else, its own credibility in dispensing speedy justice as well as infusing citizens' faith in the fairness and efficacy of the system will be put in serious jeopardy. At another level, official as well as voluntary human rights bodies point out that the overwhelming majority of detenus are booked mostly for petty offences and that they invariably belong to the deprived and weaker sections of society. The other side of the story is that the culpability of hardened criminals is often hard to establish. Correctives to this state of affairs may be built into existing laws but for any meaningful change to happen on the ground, society needs to improve its sensitivity to issues of justice within prisons and intervene pro-actively to have it delivered without further excuses.

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