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Prisoned and Penniless

Abysmally low wages for prisoners has put a question mark on prison reforms. Recommendations of the All India Jail Reforms Committee have only partially been implemented by states.

By Sanjay Raman Sinha

According to a recent news report, Maharashtra ranked lowest in the national average wage for inmates in jails across the country. As per Prison Statistics of India 2021, average wages of Rs 111.17, Rs 95.03 and Rs 87.63 are paid per day to skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled prisoners, respectively. This is abysmally low if we compare it with minimum wage rates.

Take wages of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA). In 2023-24, Haryana had the highest daily wage at Rs 357 per day and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh the lowest at Rs 221. So, an inmate gets far less than what a MGNREGA worker gets. Surprisingly, it is judicial pronouncements which have installed a low minimum wage in Indian prisons.

In the State Of Gujarat And Another vs Hon’ble High Court Of Gujarat on September 24, 1998, the state government strongly opposed the right of prisoners to claim minimum wages under the Minimum Wages Act. The Supreme Court verdict in the case held that rigorous imprisonment does not violate Article 23 of the Constitution and agreed with state governments that if they pay minimum wage rate, they can deduct a portion from the prisoners’ wages towards the expense of their upkeep in prison.

The Constitution guarantees a life of dignity and Article 23 condones and prohibits “begaar” or forced labour. It adds that nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from imposing compulsory service for public purposes. 

Though forced labour was unconstitutional, Section 53 of the colonial Indian Penal Code allowing hard labour during rigorous imprisonment continued to remain law. Also, no policy was framed towards prisoners’ right to wages. Later on, an arbitrary system of payment of wages started. Some states paid a fixed percentage of the market rate for similar work and some paid a gratuity amount. 

The Indian Penal Code aims at reform and rehabilitation. It is reformative in nature. By allowing prisoners to work and earn, the policy makes rehabilitation easier. It entitles prisoners to manage their daily expenses, save for their rehabilitation and send money to their families. In the process, it was assumed they would be reformed and become responsible citizens.

However, despite the reformative penal policy, prisoners can be forced to work as punishment. The paltry wages which they receive are arbitrarily decided by their state governments. So when in June 2020, the Calcutta High Court ruled that prison authorities are not bound to pay the minimum wage rate to prisoners, it was a painful reality of the state of prisoners.

Prison is a state subject. According to Article 246(3), the legislature of any state has the exclusive power to make laws for such State matters enumerated in the List II in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. However, Article 252 of the Constitution provides that two or more states may by resolution in their respective legislatures authorise Parliament to enact a central legislation on a State subject. The Union of India can thus consider enactment of a law relating to “Prisons” only on receipt of requests from two or more states.

The centre had requested state governments to pass resolutions for enactment of a new Prisons Act to replace the existing Prisons Act, 1894. However, as it did not receive a requisite response, it circulated a draft Model Prisons Management Bill in September 1999 among state governments. It was left to each of them to implement the provisions as per their wisdom and will. 

The All India Jail Reforms Committee (AIJRC) of 1980 made several recommendations which concern the Government of India. These suggestions aimed at ameliorating the condition of prisoners. However, many of them are yet to see the light of day.

Foremost is that the Directive on National Policy on Prisons should be formulated and embodied in Part IV of the Constitution. The Government of India has not accepted this proposal. Hence, prison policy still lacks a uniform constitutional sanctity. 

The Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) in the Ministry of Home Affairs assessed AIJRC recommendations’ and this was noted down in the Mulla Committee Report on jail reforms. The Report lists many such recommendations and notes governmental compliance to it. These are:

  • AIJRC recommendation: Programmes for reformation and rehabilitation of offenders should find a place in our national plans.
    BPRD Report: Action is taken from time to time.
  • AIJRC recommendation: There should be a complete ban on the use of inmate labour in the offices or residential quarters of prison officials.
    BPRD Report: The practice does not exist in the central jails in 20 states and UTs. It exists in three states in varying degrees.
  • AIJRC recommendation: Vocational training programmes should be developed in liaison with the Department of Technical Education, etc., and those inmates successfully undergoing training programmes should be awarded regular certificates by that Department.
    BPRD Report: A large number of states and UTs are yet to proceed in the matter. Compliance for coordination has been reported only by six states.
  • AIJRC recommendation: Every prisoner, who starts getting a prescribed task, should be brought on the wage system.
    BPRD Report: In 18 states, it is done. However, in Goa, Manipur, Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar Islands jail inmates on agricultural farms do not get any wages.
  • AIJRC recommendation: Undertrial prisoners who volunteer to work should be encouraged to take up work programmes and receive vocational training.
    BPRD Report: A little less than half of the states and UTs offer these programmes to undertrials in their central jails. 
  • AIJRC recommendation: Self-employment work programmes should be devised for prisoners, which they can independently pursue after their release.
    BPRD Report: It is done in 12 states and UTs. However, in a large number of states and UTs, this has yet to come about.
  • AIJRC recommendation: Close liaison with prospective employers should be established for the employment of released prisoners.
    BPRD Report: In eight states, this is done. However, there are many more states and UTs which have not taken an initiative in this direction.

Clearly, a lot needs to be done by states to make the living conditions of prisoners just and equitable. Prison wage is just one of them. A national prison policy is the need of the hour.  

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