By Devansh Saraswat, Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar.

“Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.” –Elizabeth Fry

John Locke believed that men are fundamentally good but laws are still required to keep down ‘the few desperate men in society’ and thus arises the need for prisons. A prison is a legally authorised place, where offenders are kept with a view to punish them for their guilty deeds, to reform them or to ostracize them altogether. Detainment facilities ought to be such compelling establishments that totally change a criminal into a well behaved native, who is sufficiently competent to manage himself after his discharge and begin another aware life. A jail should fulfil its need of being a remedial establishment, rather than merely being accredited as a place to confine detainees.

An Expedition into the Indian Milieu

The Government of India Act, 1935 had transferred the Administration of Prisons from the Central Government to the Provinces and the same can be seen reflected in the Indian Constitution, in Item No. 4 of the State List, prescribed under Schedule VII. Presently, the prisons are governed  by the prison manuals of the respective States. There have been various Committees since Independence, which have delved into the area of prison reforms, most of them have, however, been in vain, due to the reluctance of the government.

Post Independence, on the recommendations of W. Reckless, a UN Expert on Correctional Work, the Union Government appointed the All India Jail Manual Committee, in 1957, to prepare a Model Prison Manual. The report recommended a national policy relating to borstals, remand homes, juveniles, jail administration, etc. Subsequently, Justice Mulla Committee on Jail Reforms came up in 1980, recommending a ban on heinous practices; constitution of a National Prison Commission and an All India Prison Service; adequate resources and funds inter alia. The proposals of this Committee have not been adhered to and remain unfulfilled as the same appears to be evident from the present picture.

The 1973 Report of the Working Committee on Prisons emphasised on the need for a National Policy on Prisons, which provided for alternatives to imprisonment, proper training of prison personnel, treatment of offenders scientifically, revision of State Manuals and inclusion of Prisons in the Concurrent List.

Next in line was the Justice Krishna Iyer Committee in 1987, which proposed a liberal approach towards women prisoners, induction of women officers, revision of the Prison Act as per the present day socio-economic and political conditions of India, etc. Later, in 1996, following the guidelines laid down in Ramamurthy v. State of Karnataka and further on the recommendations of BPRD Committee, a jail manual was drafted, which was then circulated by the Central Government to the State Governments, which has rarely been followed by any State. Recently, the Apex Court in Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons has issued guidelines and directions for efficient working of the Under Trial Review Committees, Section 436 and 436A of the CrPC, Legal Service Authorities, Police and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

These Committees have time and again laid down various recommendations which have not been catered to, by the Governments. It would certainly not be wrong to say that the efforts made so far for prison reforms have failed time and again. Even the Courts have reiterated their concern over this issue vide various guidelines.

As of 2007, the prison population was 3,76,396, as against an official capacity of 2,77,304, distributed across 1,276 establishments throughout the Country. Prison population, as per the Annual Report of the National Crime Records Bureau 2016, was 4,19,623, which constituted 67 percent pre-trial detainees, whereas the official capacity was 3,66,781 in 1401 prisons. There are presently 18 women’s and 63 open jails. It is certainly a better picture for the nation as the occupancy rate has reduced and the number of prisons has risen to some extent, though a lot still needs to be done. Two examples portray the severity of this issue: Rudal Shah was arrested in 1953 and  had to remain in the Muzaffarpur jail for 30 years, despite being acquitted in 1968 and Boka Thakur, the longest serving under-trial prisoner in the world, arrested at age 16, was jailed and detained without trial for 36 years in the Madhubani (Bihar) jail.

Suggested Reforms

All prisoners possess certain rights like the right to human dignity, right to basic minimum needs, right to access the law, right to gainful employment, etc. They must be upheld and protected by the congruent and consistent efforts of the three pillars of the State, i.e., the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary.

  1. Overcrowding- It is a very serious problem in our prisons. Steps like reduction in numbers of under trial prisoners and increase in the number of jails is a much awaited step from the government’s side, as this concern has not been resolved since 1970s. The three wings of the criminal justice system, i.e., the Police, Courts and Prisons would have to act in harmony, for the same. Fast Track Courts have to play a major role in speedy disposal of cases. Fast Track Courts have been efficient to an extent, for this purpose, but have not made a measurable difference to the problem of pendency due to the shortage in their numbers as well.
  2. Drawing Suggestions from the Prisoners– Prisoners must have the right to provide feedback about the administration of prisons and a committee must be formed in every prison to look into such feedback and if possible, try and work on the same.
  3. Open Jails– Open Prisons is a system that tends to operate on the basis of self discipline of the inmates and has minimum possible security in place. The Rajasthan Prisoners Open Air Camp Rules, 1972 define Open Prisons as, “prisons without walls, bars and locks”. Out of  63 such prisons in India, 29 are in Rajasthan itself. The model of Open Prisons shall be replicated across the nation due to its prevention of overcrowding, ease of opening and cost effectiveness.
  4. Other effective recommendations involve stricter implementations of bail provisions, regular transfer of jail officials to prevent corrupt practices, effective legal aid services, special care to pregnant women inmates, judicial surveillance to curb any unwanted practice and a New Model Prison Manual.

A Pragmatic Exhortation

Post 70 years of Independence, India has been unable to achieve the most sought after prison reforms. There have been constant speculations through various committee reports and judicial pronouncements, however, “better said than done”. It is upon the Legislature as well as the Executive to take stringent steps now.

If a person has the Right to Die with Dignity, it would not be erroneous to presume that a Prisoner has the Right to Live with Dignity as well.