Researching Prison Conditions Has Just Been Made More Difficult by the Government

A new Home Ministry advisory has introduced difficult and ridiculous preconditions for anyone wanting to write about or study prisons

handcuffed handsPrisons by their very nature are closed institutions. They are administered in an ambience of obscurity and are, from their inception, conceived to be areas of least visibility in the entire structure of public administration. Civilised societies have been struggling against this murkiness of incarceration in order to restore the residuary dignity of a considerably large mass of humanity legally (and, sometimes illegally) kept behind bars, locks and walls.

Some sincere attempts have been made by democratic governments to open up prisons for public scrutiny and for social supervision through various mechanisms. Welfare oriented administrations have encouraged community participation in the promotion of a correctional atmosphere for prison inmates so as to facilitate their rehabilitation and re-assimilation in society after their release. Students and researchers in the field of criminology and correctional work have always found it essential to understand the viewpoint of those incarcerated, in order to evaluate the functioning of the entire criminal justice system and to suggest improvement in its various agencies – the law, the police, the prosecution, the judiciary, the bar and so on.

However, a recent advisory issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India in the wake of the supposed embarrassment caused by the broadcast of a documentary on the Delhi gang rape perpetrators seems to go against this basic correctional philosophy. “No private individual/ Press/ NGO/ Company should ordinarily be allowed entry into the prison for the purposes of doing research, making documentaries, writing articles or interviews etc,”, it states bluntly. Although ‘Prisons’ are a state subject under the Constitution, the advisory directs states and union territories to ‘scrupulously follow’ MHA’s directions while granting permission to such visitors.

In essence, the advisory severely restricts the entry into jails of individuals and groups of persons interested in the study of prison conditions, or of voluntary organisations engaged in rendering legal assistance to prison inmates. The way these guidelines have been worded and formulated reflects the government’s total distrust of the officers running the prison department. What is a simple matter of granting permission to visitors with sufficient caution in view of security concerns has been complicated both in terms of unacceptable preconditions and arduous procedures that are both impractical and undesirable.

It is essential here to reflect on some of the important features of the advisory:

The guidelines are intended to divest prison department officers of the power to grant permission to anyone for visiting jails for the purposes of making documentaries, writing articles, interviewing inmates or any other similar research activity. Only the state or UT government will be empowered to allow such visit, that too on the grounds that the purpose of the visit is ‘to create a positive social impact’, ‘prison reform’, or ‘for covering a particular event’. Although a provision has been made in para 3(c) of the advisory to delegate the powers of granting permission for visit to ‘persons of Indian nationality’ to the head of the prison department, the same is in effect withdrawn in para 3(e) of the same document.

The minimum time-limit prescribed for different categories of persons to make an application for grant of permission has been set for 7 days, 30 days and 60 days prior to the proposed visit. While there is a time-limit for making an application, there is no time-limit prescribed for the grant of such permission by the government, and the procedure laid down for allowing such visits is so circuitous that inordinate delays are bound to happen and the time-lag will mar the intended purpose of visit. Researchers and writers are bound to lose patience during the long wait and the resultant frustration will drive them to give up a study that could perhaps be of use to the government and to society. The compulsory delay mandated in the advisory will defeat the purpose of any writing in relation to an incident of important and immediate concern demanding an independent probe by civil society organisations or researchers of criminology.

Frustrating preconditions

But this is not the end of the story. There are many more frustrating preconditions, touching the bounds of ridiculousness, for people who dare to work on issues concerning prisons.

Once permission to visit a jail or to interview a prisoner has been granted to a person or a group of them, the real test of endurance will begin. They will have to enter into a bond (call it an undertaking) together with a ‘security’ in the form of a negotiable instrument (bank draft or bankers cheque) for rupees one lakh to the effect that they will abide by the conditions laid down for the visit and for preparing, processing and publishing the write-up, article, documentary, etc. Things that researchers are prohibited from carrying inside the jail include books, papers and even a pen. Researchers will have to lay aside their oft quoted dictum that the faintest ink is more dependable that the sharpest memory. Carrying a pen or paper would render them liable to forfeit their security.

While inside the prison studying prison conditions, the researcher shall be under the constant watch of the prison superintendent who is authorised to intervene on the spot if he finds that a certain photograph or an interview with an inmate is ‘not desirable’. Now this ‘desirability’ is not defined and is left purely to the discretion of the jail superintendent. If you click your camera and photograph an inmate who has severe injury marks on his body, or a part of prison barrack which has inhuman living conditions, or mentally sick inmates huddled up in a corner of an ill kept barrack without proper treatment, or if you interview an under-trial prisoner who has not been produced before the trial court for long, the jail superintendent can with full authority intervene and say that it is ‘undesirable’ and prevent you from proceeding any further at the risk of forfeiting your security deposit.

Similarly, according to the guidelines, the final version of the documentary / film / research paper / articles / books to be released or published has to be submitted to the concerned state government / head of the prison department for final approval. Such material shall not be released or published without a “No Objection Certificate” from the prison department or the government. This means that researchers, scholars, journalists, civil society organisations working on issues relating to incarceration will have only one option – to sing songs in praise of the prison system despite all its problems, woes and mismanagement. If they expose any of the maladies eating up the system, they would not get the necessary NOC and all their labour will go waste.

There are several such discouraging provisions in the guidelines which tend to kill the spirit of revealing the truth about such an important organ of the criminal justice system as prisons where human beings are kept for such long periods. The Supreme Court has repeatedly advised the government that these incarcerated persons are not criminals written off from the books of the state but human beings who need to be reformed and restored to the society.

Restrictions such as those imposed by the advisory will make prisons even more invisible and render them susceptible to all sorts of administrative iniquities.

In the entire administrative set up of the country, prisons are one of the most ignored places because they far away from any social supervision or public view. This obscurity has generated inhumanity, corruption, torture, custodial atrocities and human right violations within prison walls. That is why democratic governments around the world have endeavoured to open up their prisons for social scrutiny through various means. In India, however, we are going in the opposite direction.

Radhakant Saxena is a former Inspector General of prisons (Rajasthan) and a consultant with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

Categories: Rights

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