Protecting prisoners

The focus of public and judicial concern over the situation prevailing in India’s prisons has in recent times been related to overcrowding and long spells of incarceration faced by indigent inmates too poor to obtain bail. On some occasions, such as when the horrific blinding of prisoners in Bhagalpur took place over three decades ago, the stark human rights situation also attracted attention. The brutal murder of a woman life convict in the Byculla women’s prison in Mumbai on June 23 has brought the focus back on custodial violence, especially the vulnerability of inmates to authoritarian behaviour. The allegation that prison guards targeted Manjula Shette, a lifer brought to the jail a couple of months ago from the Yerwada Central Prison in Pune as a warder, over some missing rations is indeed startling. It is said she incurred the wrath of the guards because of her rising popularity among the women prisoners. This suggests that until her arrival the inmates may not have been accustomed to even rudimentary care from the jail authorities. Eyewitnesses say that when the warder was severely assaulted by the guards, it led to a riot-like situation among the prisoners. It is not difficult to surmise that simmering discontent over the prevailing conditions, and an intense animus between the guards and the inmates, were behind the events. It is some consolation that the police have arrested six prison officials for the custodial murder.

It is disconcerting that the untoward incident took place at a time when the Maharashtra government had been directed by the Bombay High Court to undertake a comprehensive review of the conditions in three major prisons in the State. As per the March 2017 court order, an empowered committee was to be constituted to look into all aspects of the jails in the light of Supreme Court decisions, the Model Prison Manual of 2016 and relevant UN resolutions. In particular, the panel was to suggest measures to create modern jails and modernise amenities. In the last half century, the superior courts have passed a series of orders to reform jails. The issues range from prisoners’ rights, health, hygiene and access to legal aid, to the condition of women inmates and their children. The judiciary’s approach has been anchored in the belief that fundamental rights “do not part company with the prisoner at the gates”. The Union Home Minister released a model jail manual last year. It makes clear that the state is under an obligation to protect the residuary rights of prisoners after they surrender their liberty to a legal process. One can only reiterate a principle already enshrined in it: the management of prisons must be marked by firm discipline, but also due regard to the human rights of prisoners. Prison reforms are not only about amenities and conditions; they must also address the prisoner’s right to life.