June 23 marked the first anniversary of the death of Manjula Shetye in Byculla women’s prison, at the very heart of Mumbai, following an alleged murderous assault by five women jail staffers, including the jailor. Her death triggered protests by women inmates in the jail against the jail staff, attracting widespread media attention and leading to a public outcry, a rarity in such cases. It highlighted the inhumane conditions behind the high walls of a prison.
Although, as a consequence, the last year has seen multiple policy-level initiatives, little seems to have happened with getting justice in the specific case of Shetye.
Soon after her death, the Maharashtra government entrusted the investigation to the state crime branch; the prison department also initiated an internal enquiry. The latter, however, fell into murky waters after the DIG (prisons) Swati Sathe was found asking fellow officers to support the accused jail staffers, over WhatsApp. Sathe later stepped down as the enquiry officer in the probe.
All the five accused were arrested and put behind bars after the initial investigation showed that Shetye had been dead at least half an hour before being brought to the JJ Hospital, just a few minutes from the jail. The report submitted by the crime branch in September 2017 made stark revelations: it said that the accused were well aware that the assault could lead to Shetye’s death yet continued to kick and assault her. The investigation also revealed the role of the doctor, investigating the case, for allegedly giving a fake certificate stating that there were no visible injury marks on her body.
Soon after Shetye’s death, a number of policy initiatives were taken by different bodies including the state and Central governments with a focus on improving conditions of women jail inmates. The Maharashtra government, complying with the directions of the Bombay high court, formed a five-member committee headed by Justice (Retd.) S. Radhakrishnan in July 2017, to study and address the issues pertaining to prisons of Maharashtra.
This past year, the committee has initiated major policy-level changes in Maharashtra, including improvement in access to legal aid for inmates, ensuring the constitution of board of visitors (BOV) and regular visits of the non-official visitors (NOVs); it emphasised the need for medical examination of prisoners and pushed for effective functioning of review committees.
Following Shetye’s death, a team of 20 women members of Parliament, part of the parliamentary committee on empowerment of women, also had visited Byculla jail in July 2017, to study the living conditions of women prisoners. The visit involved meetings with women inmates on the incident as well as on issues which they faced.
The committee submitted its report, ‘Women in Detention and Access to Justice’ to Parliament six months ago. It made a number of scathing observations on core issues like overcrowding in prisons, lack of proper healthcare, non-implementation of the Model Prison Manual, training and recruitment of prison staff, custodial abuse and access to justice. Its suggestions for change were relevant and seen as a positive move towards improving the poor, vulnerable and degrading conditions which many women prisoners face in India.
As an outcome of the report and subsequent to a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs seeking implementation of the recommendations, the National Legal Services Authority launched a 10-day campaign in May 2018 to identify key issues impacting women prisoners and take concrete steps to uphold their rights. The campaign is being executed by the State Legal Service Authorities and District Legal Service Authorities covering every jail which housed women inmates. The National Commission for Women and the Ministry of Women and Child Development, too, have initiated studies on improving conditions of women prisons across the country.
But are the setting up of committees and developing policy recommendations enough to change ground realities? India is not new to policy or even legislative reforms for prisons. Over 30 years ago in the 1980s, the Justice Mulla Committee Report on Prison Reforms and the Justice Krishna Iyer Committee on Women Prisoners, made sweeping recommendations, especially on prison conditions and the state of undertrial prisoners. These committees were among the first to recommend, among other things, legal aid to prisoners, initiation of rehabilitative and aftercare services and district-level committees to review cases of undertrials and recommend their early release.
India’s Supreme Court, from time to time, has also given directives on the issue, the most recent being in the ‘Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons’. A slew of orders by the Supreme Court have sought to drive change on issues of overcrowding, staff vacancy and deaths in prisons. However, without robust on ground implementation in the sprawling correctional system, these proposed changes may be doomed to remain on paper.
After all, it took the court a full year in the Shetye case to file charges against her alleged attackers and for the trial to begin. This despite the interest and pressure brought to bear by political leaders as well as activist groups and media. These indicate both the infirmity and tardiness of the system as well as the people running it in addition to stubborn internal resistance to change even when this is being sought by the highest court and by lawmakers.
We can hope for a speedy trial, and that the perpetrators of the assaults, which led to her painful death, will be held accountable. Making the process transparent and swift would set an example which can reduce torture in prisons, curb excesses by those in authority, control abuse of power and end impunity.
Indeed, Manjula Shetye’s case is another reason why India, which signed the United Nations Convention against Torture in 1997, should ratify it to create safe spaces for prisoners and to hold those who abuse them to account. It would show India’s commitment to international human rights conventions that uphold gender dignity, assert the primacy of law and the rights or ordinary people.
Sabika Abbas is Project Officer, Prison Reforms Programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. She holds a Master’s in Social Work with specialisation in Criminology from TISS, Mumbai.
Note: The article was edited to note that India has signed the Torture Convention in 1997 but not ratified it.