Above: The Tihar prison complex has nine jails; the number of inmates far exceeds its capacity/Photo: Anil Shakya
A PIL in Delhi High Court urging that law officers be appointed in jails of the national capital is a good idea as they will help in streamlining routine legal functions
By Abhishek Dixit
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Prisons have existed since time immemorial. However, with the passage of time, their conditions and administration have undergone a significant change from deterrence to reformative.
The current prison system in India owes its legacy to British rule, Lord Thomas Macaulay being the pioneer of this change. He was a member of the Prison Discipline Committee which acted as a catalyst in suggesting several prison reforms, some of which exist even today. This committee was followed by others such as the Mysore Jails Committee (1941), Kerala Jails Committee (1953), All India Jail Manual Committee (1957), Justice Krishna Iyer Committee (1987), etc, all of which contributed to better prison management.
After Independence, various central and state laws were enacted. Consequently, several rules were framed with the judiciary playing the front role. Some of the legislation include:
- The Prisons Act, 1894: This was an important legislation and had provisions relating to health, employment, duties of jail officers, medical examination of prisoners, prison offences, etc
- Transfer of Prisoners Act, 1950: This Act deals with the transfer of a prisoner from one state to another
- Prisoners (Attendance in Courts) Act, 1955: It empowers the court to summon prisoners to appear before it for giving evidence or answering criminal charges
- Delhi Prisons Act, 2000: It extends only to the national capital region of Delhi, and relates to the composition, power and duties of jail authorities
Prison reforms have been a subject of intense debate and discussion for several decades in India, but even today, a lot needs to be done at the grassroots level. The judiciary has played a proactive role in the improvement of prisons but there are still issues relating to prisons and their reform that continue to pose a big hurdle in the criminal justice system.
Recently, a PIL was filed in the Delhi High Court seeking directions to appoint one law officer each in the 16 jails in the national capital. There are nine jails in the Tihar prison complex, one in Rohini and six in the Mandoli prison complex. The High Court has sought the response of the Delhi government and the director-general of Tihar Jail on the PIL.
Section 6 of the Delhi Prisons Act, 2000, provides that every prison must have a superintendent, a deputy superintendent, a medical officer, a law officer, a welfare officer and other such officers as the government deems fit. The plea also stated that jails in the state are overcrowded and a law officer for every prison would result in better administration.
So what is the role and requirement of a law officer in the prison administration? A law officer is primarily required for smoothening and streamlining routine legal functions, such as:
- UT/CT (Union Territory/Capital Territory)-related court issues: These are day-to-day court matters relating to producing inmates, release issues, warrants, interpretation of court orders, replies to notices, queries, etc
- Preparing a compliance report/reply to give to the inspecting judge
- Attending to various court directions: Production warrants issued by various courts in Delhi and outside Delhi require the presence of inmates on the same date
- Identifying important court daks: Handling of court daks and related issues for immediate disposal/compliance
- Inter-state court matters of inmates lodged in Delhi jails but produced outside Delhi courts
- Interpretation of court orders/judgments etc
- Looking into court matters, be it of the Supreme Court, high courts, district courts, Central Administrative Tribunal, Labour Court or Consumer Court
- Regularly organising Lok Adalats for petty offences
- Avoidance of day-to-day appearance of the superintendent in court in compliance with court order(s) so that he can concentrate on the management of the jail
- Handling legal aid matters in courts and maintaining coordination with the Delhi High Court Legal Services Committee, the Delhi State Legal Services Authority, the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee and the National Legal Services Authority
- Ensuring proper implementation of jail manual rules for the benefit of all stakeholders, i.e., prisoners, officials, visitors, etc
- Overseeing the functioning of visitors
- Preparing reports of prisoners eligible for benefit under Section 436 A of the Criminal Procedure Code
- Preparing reports for the perusal of courts relating to undertrial prisoners who have been granted bail but have not been released due to various reasons, enabling the court to modify the conditions imposed
- Reports relating to bail granted but not released to courts
- Tracking the progress of cases of undertrial prisoners
- Seeing reports relating to pending appeals before the High Court
- Evaluation of parole/furlough matters of convicts
- Proper examination of records/preparation of cases of life convicts for placing them before the Sentence Review Board
- Coordination with the Undertrial Review Committee
- Assisting in selection of inmates for semi-open/open jail
- Interpretation and implementation of standing orders/circulars issued by the police headquarters from time to time
- In jails employing inmates in a factory, applicability of labour and factory laws may require the law officer’s assistance for interpretation of Acts and rules for proper management
- The appointment of a law officer is necessary to supervise all legal matters, draft and file replies to the court, follow up cases, appear in court along with the government counsel, coordinate with various departments for compliance with directions of courts and maintain monthly statistics of court cases.
Thus, law officers have a variety of roles to play in order to help the inmates and aid the prison administration. It has been said that if people get sick, we take them to a hospital and give them the right medicine to get better. But if a person’s behaviour is sick, we bring him to a prison, but forget the medicines.
The judiciary has played a vital role in the improvement of the prison system, and hopefully, it will continue to do so, thereby reducing some of its problems.
—The writer is an IPS officer, currently posted as Commandant—TN Special Police in Tihar Jail. His views are personal and not in any official capacity