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Above: Police officials gather outside Arthur Road jail in Mumbai after an inmate’s death

Despite far-reaching measures being suggested and the Supreme Court stipulating that inmates cannot be denied basic human rights, significant improvement still eludes Indian prisons

~By Vrinda Agarwal

A UK court hearing India’s extradition plea on Vijay Mallya has asked for a video of Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail, where the flamboyant ex-liquor tycoon will be detained if sent back to India. Purportedly, the purpose of the request is to verify Mallya’s concerns about the prison wards being unliveable and lacking even natural light and ventilation.

This unusual situation could result in one of two possible outcomes. First, as a knee-jerk reaction, Arthur Road jail could be hastily dressed-up for the purpose of conveying a picture that helps move the extradition plea forward. Second, in a greatly unwise move, the Ministry of Home Affairs may provide the UK court with as-is photographs of the jail and possibly jeopardise the extradition trial.

There is a third scenario too, which although improbable, stares at us with glaring necessity: that the Indian government finally sees, in full light, the deteriorating condition of prisons, and the inhuman treatment meted out to privilege-less citizens in the name of correctional reform.

That prisons in India are overcrowded dens where violence and deprivation perpetuate on a daily basis is common knowledge. But to fully understand the gravity of the situation, one must note that most prisons in the country are 100-150 years old and were built during the British rule when the prisoner population was relatively negligible. Over time, due to population growth and trials getting delayed, the number of prisoners has increased substantially. As a result, the number of inmates in most prisons is about two to three times over their capacity.

In Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail, there are over 2,700 inmates against a sanctioned capacity of 804 inmates. In Delhi’s Tihar jail, considered one of the best prisons in the country, there are 10,500 inmates against a sanctioned capacity of 7,000 inmates. A large number of inmates are undertrials who have been languishing behind bars despite getting bail as they are too poor to furnish the bail bond. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 67 percent of the prisoner population comprises undertrials.

As stressed by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on many occasions, prisons are “plagued with numerous problems like severe overcrowding, under-staffing, lack of adequate medical care, physical maltreatment of prisoners including custodial deaths, lack of infrastructure, poor administration and inadequate inter-agency communication”. While the rich and privileged find a way to work around the problems, for others, prisons are living hell. Such inhuman conditions have persisted despite the Supreme Court having interpreted Article 21 of the Constitution to stipulate that prisoners cannot be denied basic human rights.

Women prisoners, although recognised as a separate category of prisoners by the Supreme Court, suffer no better fate than their male counterparts. In fact, they have to face the additional burden of managing their hygiene and sanitary needs in a prison environment that is often hostile. The reality is even grimmer for those women inmates whose small children live with them inside the prison and have to be released once they attain six years of age, sometimes with no one outside to care for them. The Supreme Court recently suggested that a pragmatic policy be framed to address the issue of welfare of such children after they are released from prison.

Barring interventions by the courts, the cause of prison reforms in India has been a neglected one, lacking institutional character and real impact. Prisons are a state subject under the Constitution, thus state governments are responsible for the administration of prisons within their territory. However, some states have not even updated their prison manuals to align them with the Model Prison Manual 2016 prepared by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The continued neglect by the central and state governments towards prison reforms has led to organisations like the NHRC playing an interventionist role and responding to serious lapses that are brought to its notice. The NHRC has also made several recommendations for prison reforms which include replacement of the Prisons Act 1894 with a new one, uniformity in prison manuals, reducing overcrowding, setting up of more courts, increased spending on prison reforms, etc.

In the past, the central government has also set up various committees to suggest recommendations for prison reforms. Foremost among them is the All India Jail Committee (1919), which recognised reformation and rehabilitation of offenders as one of the objectives of prison administration. This was      followed by the Indian Jail Reforms Committee (1980) under Justice AN Mulla, the RK Kapoor Committee (1986) and the Justice Krishna Iyer Committee on Women Prisoners (1987), and the All India Prison Manual Committee (2000).

In 2007, the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) had framed a draft national policy on prison reforms and correctional administration. This policy suggested enactment of uniform and comprehensive legislation on reformation and rehabilitation of offenders and envisaged that the subject of prisons be included in the Concurrent List of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution. Other key recommendations included development of a well-organised prison cadre to ensure efficient functioning of prisons and setting up of a National Commission on Prisons as the nodal authority on all matters relating to prisons and allied services.

Undoubtedly, several studies have been carried out and far-reaching measures have been suggested, yet there has been no significant improvement in the condition of prisons. While addressing a seminar on prison reforms organised by NHRC in 2014, Home Minister Rajnath Singh had mentioned that state governments will be provided with more funds for modernisation of prisons. He

added that the central government will work to ensure that the recommendations made by NHRC are implemented by the state governments.

If the Ministry of Home Affairs is still looking for an opportune time to act on those assurances, now would be a good one.

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