After studying the living conditions of jail inmates across the country, Supreme Court-appointed amicus curiae Gaurav Agrawal has recommended significant reforms.
The amicus curiae in an ongoing case before the Supreme Court has recommended significant reforms to improve the living conditions of inmates in jails across the country.
Since 2013, Supreme Court has been hearing a suo motu case involving inhuman conditions in 1,382 prisons in India. The case was triggered by a letter written by the former chief justice of India, RC Lahoti (in his capacity as a citizen) to the then chief justice of India. This letter was converted to a writ petition.
In this case, the bench comprising of justices Madan B Lokur and RK Agrawal has been issuing directions and monitoring compliance with them on a regular basis. The bench issued significant directives to all the states in an order it delivered on 5 February.
Amicus curiae in this case, Gaurav Agrawal, has recently submitted a series of recommendations to the court based on his research.
To address the overcrowding in jails, he has recommended that there is an urgent need for state governments to take steps, in the short and long term, towards construction of new jails in various districts.
He has suggested to the court that it should consider directing state governments to provide jail-wise figures of overcrowding in their respective states, and indicate how they propose to reduce overcrowding in jails where overcrowding is more than 150%.
Agrawal could find figures for overcrowding in jails only in seven states, from their websites. In Uttar Pradesh, a number of jails have population double than the sanctioned strength, and some of the jails have more than three times the inmate population.
Bihar has an overall occupancy rate of 87.6% (as per National Crime Records Bureau data), but the jail-wise figures show that there is heavy overcrowding in a large number of jails.
According to the NCRB, unnatural deaths in jails include suicide, murder by inmates, death due to firing, death due to negligence or excesses by jail personnel.
The number of unnatural deaths has seen a steady increase from 126 in 2012 to 195 in 2014, though in the year 2013, it registered a marginal decline to 115. The number of natural deaths too has registered a steady increase during this period. It was 1,345 in 2012, 1,482 inn 2013 and 1,507 in 2014.
Although suicides constitute the largest number of unnatural deaths, the number of unnatural deaths classified as ‘Others’ is intriguing.
Agrawal cites a 2014 NHRC study to suggest that suicide rate in prison (number of deaths per 1 lakh of prison population) was 16.88% during 2007-2011, which is higher than the normal suicide rate.
Agrawal’s interaction with NGOs and prison authorities of Tihar and West Bengal has been helpful to identify certain broad category of inmates who are vulnerable to suicides. They can be broadly classified as under:
- First time offenders
- Persons who have little or no family support or are not able to afford lawyers (or get access to legal aid)
- Drug addicts and persons suffering from serious medical conditions
- Young offenders
- Persons who have suffered mental illness due to continuous detention in prison
- Offenders whose parole or bail applications have been rejected
- Persons who are awarded death sentence
- Persons who have not been taken before the court for their productions.
Agrawal has found that the manner in which a first time offender is treated by the prison staff on the day he/she enters the prison is very dehumanising. He writes: “He/she is made to squat on the floor till the formalities are completed and then bundled into overcrowded wards. The various experiences in jail increase the chance of the inmate committing suicide. In the discussions, it was felt that chances of suicide can be reduced, if some counseling takes place prior to the inmate entering the prison for the first time. It was also felt that chances of suicide can be reduced if the inmate is able to speak to his family members in the days immediately following his first incarceration and able to access their lawyer or avail of legal aid.”
Based on his findings, Agrawal has suggested the following:
- The prison staff should be directed by the jail superintendent to be humane in the manner in which they treat the persons who are being sent to the prison for the first time, especially those who are young (aged 18 to 25 years). They should be guided about the prison procedures and regulations at the time of admission.
- The prison authorities may, on experimental basis, associate well recognized NGOs who can counsel first time offenders before they enter the prison, so that they can be mentally prepared for prison life.
- There is a pressing need for counseling of first time offenders by trained psychologists soon before and after they are lodged in prisons.
- Appropriate administrative instructions should be issued to the jail superintendents to give a longer meeting time with the family members of the inmate on the days following his/her incarceration and to permit at least two meetings with the family members in the weeks following such custody. Such inmates could be allowed to talk on the telephone to their family members for a longer duration in the first couple of weeks as it takes some time to get used to the regimented prison routine.
- The District Legal Service Authorities must be furnished with a list of inmates who are lodged in jails under their jurisdiction and the jail visiting advocates must be specifically instructed to meet all first time offenders. Inmates are unwilling to approach the jail visiting advocates on their own. Therefore, the advocates appointed by the DLSA must ask the accused if he or she has legal representation, and in case they are not able to engage their own advocate, the prison staff or paralegals must fulfil the necessary formalities to ensure legal representation is provided at the earliest. The jail superintendents should be instructed to ensure that the inmates who do not have a lawyer of their own mandatorily meet the jail visiting advocates.\
- Introduction of effective grievance redressal mechanism within the jails through a complaint box which shall be periodically opened only by the inspecting judge, who is expected to redress the grievance.
- Introduction of open jails and relaxation of guidelines as to when a convict can be sent to semi-open/open jails.
- Mandatory visit by the MBBS interns to jails during their compulsory 1 year training.
- Granting of bail to an undertrial for temporary period if the inmate is found suffering from communicable diseases like TB, which may adversely affect the health of other inmates; such an inmate can also be considered for parole/furlough (even if he has otherwise exhausted his quota for the year) and the case for such release should be processed expeditiously by the jail superintendent and state government.