Supreme Court Issues Directions to Prevent, Compensate for Unnatural Death of Prisoners

The court also set timelines for the circulation of manuals and guidelines, the constitution of a board of visitors and to tabulate details on juveniles who died an unnatural death.

Representational image. Credit: PTI

Representational image. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: In a landmark judgment that is expected to improve prison conditions and lead to the setting up of mechanisms to lower the number of unnatural deaths in prisons and compensate families of the deceased, the Supreme Court has directed the chief justices of high courts to register a suo motu public interest petition to identify the next of kin of the prisoners who have admittedly died an unnatural death, as revealed by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) between 2012 and 2015, and to “award suitable compensation” in case it has not been paid.

In its order issued on September 15, the bench comprising Justices Madan B. Lokur and Deepak Gupta, also directed the Centre through the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to ensure the circulation within one month, and at the latest by October 31, of the Model Prison Manual; the monograph prepared by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) titled “Suicide in Prison – prevention strategy and implication from human rights and legal points of view”; communications sent by the NHRC; the compendium of advisories issued by the MHA to the state governments; and the Nelson Mandela Rules and the Guidelines on Investigating Deaths in Custody issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross to the director general or inspector general of police in charge of prisons in every state and union territory.

Explain difference between natural and unnatural deaths

Calling for all efforts to be made to “reduce and possibly eliminate unnatural deaths in prisons and to document each and every death in prisons – both natural and unnatural,” the bench also told the Centre to direct the NCRB to explain and clarify the distinction between unnatural and natural deaths in prisons as indicated on the bureau’s website and in its annual reports. The court has also demanded that the NCRB should be told to explain the sub-categorisation ‘others’ within the category of unnatural deaths.

Noting that “like most societies, we are not strangers to custodial violence and unnatural deaths,” the court had said India’s vibrant democracy permits it to debate and discuss these issues with rational arguments. Stating that there must be a greater degree of sensitivity among those in authority with regard to persons in custody, the bench recalled how former chief justice R.C. Lahoti had while highlighting the aspect of custodial deaths treated a letter to the court as a public interest litigation. The court had then flagged the issues of overcrowding in prisons, unnatural death of prisoners, gross inadequacy of staff, and untrained or inadequately trained staff.

In its order dated February 5, 2016, the court had dealt with the issue of overcrowding in prisons and issued certain directions. In the present decision, it has considered the issue of unnatural deaths after relying on information provided by the NCRB. The NCRB had stated that there were 1469 natural and 115 unnatural deaths in 2015. But the court had observed that the distinction was “unclear”. For example, if a prisoner dies due to a lack of proper medical attention or timely medical attention, would that be classified as a natural death or an unnatural death, it asked.

What are “other” causes in unnatural deaths

Noting that 115 unnatural deaths were reported in 2015, the court said of these 77 were attributed to suicides, 11 to murder by inmates, seven to assault by outside elements, and 19 to causes identified as “others”. However, again it said, “there is a lack of clarity in the classification of unnatural deaths in the category of others” and said the NCRB should be directed to explain the difference not only between a natural death and an unnatural death but also to clarify the sub-categorisation of “others” in unnatural deaths.

States told to sensitise jail staff, appoint counsellors

As for the state governments, the Supreme Court has directed that they should in conjunction with the State Legal Services Authority (SLSA), the National and State Police Academy and the Bureau of Police Research and Development conduct training and sensitisation programmes for senior police officials of all prisons on their functions, duties and responsibilities as also the rights and duties of prisoners.

The apex court in its order also spelled out the need to have counsellors and support persons in prisons. “Their services can be utilized to counsel and advice prisoners who might be facing some crisis situation or might have some violent or suicidal tendencies. The State Governments are directed to appoint counsellors and support persons for counselling prisoners, particularly first-time offenders. In this regard, the services of recognised NGOs can be taken and encouraged,” it said.

Prisoners to get more access to families, lawyer

Realising the importance of greater interaction between the prisoners and their families and lawyers, the bench said “visits to prison by the family of a prisoner should be encouraged” and noted that “it would be worthwhile to consider extending the time or frequency of meetings and also explore the possibility of using phones and video conferencing for communications not only between a prisoner and family members of that prisoner, but also between a prisoner and the lawyer, whether appointed through the State Legal Services Authority or otherwise.”

It also directed all the SLSAs to urgently conduct a study on the overall conditions in prisons in the state and the facilities available as had been conducted by the Bihar SLSA and also but the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Rajasthan.

The court said the SLSAs should also assess the effect and impact of various schemes framed by National Legal Services Authority relating to prisoners and urged the chief justices of all high courts to take up the initiative in the capacity of patron-in-chief of the respective SLSA.

Medical facilities in prisons do not meet minimum standards

Lamenting that it has been found that in Karnataka, West Bengal and Delhi “the medical facilities in prisons do not meet minimum standards of care,” the court said this is an indication that the human right to health is not given adequate importance in prisons and that may also be one of the causes of unnatural deaths in prisons.

Therefore, observing that “providing medical assistance and facilities to inmates in prisons needs no reaffirmation” as “the right to health is undoubtedly a human right,” the court said all state governments should concentrate on making this a reality for all, including prisoners. It also directed all state governments to study the availability of medical assistance to prisoners and take remedial steps wherever necessary.

Create Board of Visitors with eminent persons by November 30

Observing that the constitution of a Board of Visitors, which includes non-official visitors, is of considerable importance since through it eminent members of society can participate in initiating reforms in prisons and in the rehabilitation of prisoners, the Supreme Court has directed all the states to complete the constitution of such boards by November 30.

It has also directed that the establishment of ‘open jails’ or ‘open prisons’ be considered and in this respect noted that the experiment was a success in Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) and at the semi-open prison in Delhi.

Juvenile care given high priority

The court has also directed the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which is concerned with the implementation of Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, to formulate by December 31 procedures for tabulating the number of children who suffer an unnatural death in childcare institutions where they are kept in custody either because they are in conflict with the law or because they need care and protection. It also directed the respective high court bench hearing the suo motu PIL as per its directions to “pass necessary orders and directions” in case of any difficulty.

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