Prisoners already face endemic issues like poor sanitation, lack of resources and insufficient wages, and the new rules are looking to restrict them from going on a hunger strike singing, laughing and talking loudly.
The Model Prison Manual (MPM) forms the basic guidelines on the conduct of prisons, which states are expected to adhere to by adopting it into their own prison manuals. However, some states are yet to come up with their manuals based on the first MPM, which was circulated by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) in 2003.
In 2015, the Supreme Court directed the Ministry of Home Affairs, under whom the BPRD functions, to review the MPM as there had been a huge change in circumstances and the availability of technology since 2003.
The court also suggested to the government that the committee constituted to look into the MPM should be multi-disciplinary and include members from civil society, NGOs and domain experts.
The new MPM is a detailed document consisting of 32 chapters that deal with a variety of issues, including custodial management, medical care, education of prisoners, vocational training and skill development programmes, legal aid, welfare of prisoners, after care and rehabilitation, Board of Visitors and prison computerisation.
The Supreme Court’s order on February 5, delivered by Justice Madan B Lokur, describes the new MPM as a composite document that needs to be implemented with due seriousness and dispatch. It is, therefore, imperative that its aberrations are reviewed before it is recommended to the states for adoption.
The yet-to-be released draft MPM 2016 includes a chapter on prison discipline, the guidelines of which would make any civilized person squirm.
Chapter 21 of the manual contains a list of prison offences and punishments. Included in it are guidelines that renders futile the exercise initiated by the Supreme Court to bring in reform in prisons.
According to the new manual, “refusing to eat food or going on a hunger-strike” [Rule 21.09 (xxiii)] is considered a prison offence. If prisoners are not allowed to register a nonviolent form of protest then there can be no reform initiated through the manual no matter how progressive the other chapters are.
Under major punishments, the manual also prescribes the “forfeiture of earned remission beyond 10 days” [Rule 21.11.2 (iv)]. The forfeiture of earned remission without an upper cap and without the intervention of an appellate body in opaque institutions like prisons is not only arbitrary but also cruel and inhumane.
The chapter also prescribes duties for prisoners, one of which states: “Abstain from talking when in a file at unlocking or at latrine and bathing or other parades, or at any time when ordered by an officer of the prison to desist; also abstain from abusing, singing, quarrelling, laughing loudly, talking loudly and indecent behaviour at any time.” [Rule: 21.15 (iii)]
Even if other duties make sense, the duty to abstain from “singing, laughing loudly, and talking loudly” makes one wonder if what the new manual is aiming at is to deprive prisoners of their basic right to be human beings.
The Varanasi riot
Prison rules, besides other reasons, implicitly explain why a riot breaks out in a prison.
Take for instance the riot at Varanasi district jail on April 2, where inmates took hostage the jail superintendent. Media reports claimed the inmates refused to speak to officials, pelted stones and ransacked prison office until the armed forces were brought in to handle the situation. The daylong histrionics ended when a local Samajwadi Party leader negotiated with the inmates to secure the release of the superintendent, who has since been transferred to another prison.
There is nothing new about prison riots. But one wonders, why do prison riots still happen? The incident at Varanasi was deeply disturbing because the prisoners were actually negotiating for an improvement in the basic prison conditions before the violence broke out.
Whether the riot was pre-planned will only be known when the investigation is completed, but it is important to note that the prisoners were aware that their agitation would have consequences. The administration is unlikely to simply forget the incident. If, in the course of the investigation, any prisoner is found guilty of rioting, he will be booked under administrative charges, which will have heavy penalties attached to it.
What prompted the prisoners to put themselves in a position of double jeopardy? Typically a prisoner does not have the scope to raise his voice – he is vulnerable, scared, lonely and already in conflict with the law. Therefore, he connives with other disgruntled prisoners to bring attention towards the distressing conditions. There are instances when such group agitations fail to get attention or are brutally crushed. When prisoners have their back against the wall, riot breaks out.
Undertrained and underpaid staff
Ideally, the prison staff should be focused on the welfare of the prisoner, and staff should try to give physical and moral strength to the inmate, who is already under distress due to imprisonment. Unfortunately, prison staff are not trained to tackle a situation of an outbreak of a mass violence, nor are they able to gauge the tension that may building up among the inmates.
To understand the magnanimity of the problem that plagues the prison administration, some facts must be discussed. Primarily, the prison department is under the domain of state governments and the budgetary allocation for prisons vary among the states. Prison staff strength, staff remuneration, expenditure per prisoner, the physical condition of prisons and the remuneration for prison labour are all subject to the political will of the concerned state government. However, as prisons are considered taboo, it is often the most neglected department in the states and the conditions in prisons across the country are broadly similar.
Prisons remain severely under-staffed, and the staff are often underpaid and undertrained. Staff are thus hard-pressed to meticulously carry out a very stressful job. As a result, prisons are high-tension zones where small disagreements can result in brutal, meaningless violence. Life in prisons is a constant struggle for the prisoner and the staff.
Chaotic prison conditions often make staff administer the jails through rules that cannot be found in the prison manuals. When a clash breaks out, and if it becomes disproportionately large in no time, an alarm is raised, the basic objective of which is to quickly mobilise manpower to bring the situation under control. However, most often an alarm translates to what prisoners call ‘pagli ghanti’ – inmates are indiscriminately lathi-charged and beaten until discipline is restored.
Another term I encountered while visiting prisons in Bihar was ‘pingla diet’, literally translated to mean ‘thin diet’. Food deprivation is a form of torture used across the world. However, pingla diet is used to describe a practice where the inmate is kept hungry but not starved – he is provided with just enough food to keep him from dying.
Prison conditions cannot be improved without an improvement in the quality of the staff. Prison jobs requires special skills and understanding. Thus, serious attention must be paid in training staff for jails. Apart from a handful of southern states, where staff undergo nine months of training at the Academy of Prisons and Correctional Administration in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, no such practice is observed in the rest of India. The training academies in other parts of the country lack sufficient funds and prison departments are unable to run basic training courses. Prison staff need to be sensitised, trained and exposed to best practices of the world, and must receive proper remuneration.
Justice Lokur, in his February 5 order, has brought to light the fact that no financial grant was allotted for prison reforms in 19 states and in states where grants were allotted, the utilisation was less than 100%, except in Tripura. Another fact highlighted by the judge is that there are as many as 530 persons in custody in Uttar Pradesh alone as undertrial prisoners, only because of their poverty. The total number of undertrial prisoners who continue to suffer imprisonment because of their failure to furnish bail bonds is said to be 3470, of whom 797 are in Maharashtra alone.
In a subsequent order, Justice Lokur imposed costs of 25,000 rupees on all states and union territories, except Bihar, for non-compliance with a direction requiring the filing of affidavits with regard to conditions in prisons.
Rajasthan high court’s landmark judgment
Justice Lokur’s order coincided with another landmark judgment, delivered by Justices Mohammad Rafiq and J.K. Ranka of the Rajasthan high court on January 27. Justice Rafiq also initiated suo motu proceedings to improve the prison conditions in Rajasthan, in specific areas such as, sanitation, food, healthcare, recreational, educational and vocational activities, and infrastructure and welfare.
During the hearing of this case, the Rajasthan high court found that the ratio of available bathrooms vis-a-vis the number of prisoners was quite alarming. For instance, in barrack 4A at Jaipur’s central jail, there are only four toilets for about 200-250 inmates and the toilets did not have water supply. Citing an inspection report, the court also observed that there were no doors at the toilets, thus denying the inmates basic privacy. The justices further noted that most official claims of measures being taken to improve the toilet facilities in the prisons were false.
Further, the high court ordered guidelines to be framed for the segregation of political prisoners, and noted that the absence of such guidelines enables jail authorities to use their discretion to confer VIP status, with an entitlement to special amenities, on certain prisoners, most often former ministers and bureaucrats.
The high court also issued a slew of directions to improve facilities in prisons within a timeframe, and sought to ensure the authorities’ compliance with its directions through regular monitoring.
The court also directed the state government to provide a minimum of four newspapers everyday and four monthly magazines, 100 novels annually and allot one-lakh rupees per year to buy books for the prison libraries. It has also directed the government to screen one movie every fortnight for the inmates.
However, the high court’s direction to provide one sweet to the prisoner every week highlights the fact that it takes the intervention of a superior court to protect a human right. Earlier, prison rules provided for the distribution of sweets only during Holi, Diwali, Eid and Independence Day.
The Rajasthan high court judgment also brought to light the fact that prisoners in the state were being paid only ten rupees per day for working eight hours, in breach of Article 23 of the Constitution, which prohibits human trafficking and forced labour.
Because of the court’s intervention, the wages for prisoners were revised to 150 rupees per day for workers at the Udyogshala prison workhouse and 130 rupees per day for unskilled workers. However, wages of semiskilled labourers remained unaltered, inviting fresh orders for a revision from the high court.
Prisoner wages are a problem in most states. In Bihar, undertrial prisoners are made to work without any remuneration. In West Bengal, prisoners are paid a pittance for the work they do.
Adhir Sharma, the former additional director general of prisons in West Bengal, had recommended a substantial enhancement in prisoner wages before being transferred to another department. Sharma shared his disappointment with this writer that the state government had not yet initiated any steps to implement his recommendations. He also added that the delayed payment of wages is one reason for resentment among inmates.
An important question to ask is if dignity is a human right, to borrow a phrase from the urban folk singer Susmit Bose’s song All Rise, and is so, what we as a society have done to ensure it for the prisoners.
Smita Chakraburtty is an independent activist and a researcher. She has been documenting custodial violence and working on prisoners’ rights.