Two key prison oversight mechanisms – the prison visiting system and the undertrial review committees – which had been envisaged as part of the prison reform programme to keep a check on unnecessary detention, prison overcrowding and prison morbidity, have failed to deliver desired results due to both political and administrative apathy and disinterest shown by a majority of state governments in the country.
This has been brought out by studies undertaken by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which has been advocating for strengthening these systems for the last 15 years.
At a consultation before the meeting on ‘Prison Oversight and Transparency’ organised by CHRI on November 8, it was revealed that both these key oversight mechanisms have failed to live up to their expectations.
For the prison visiting system, it was pointed out that it was mandated under the Prisons Act 1894 and governments are required to constitute a board of visitors (BOV) to oversee prison conditions and treatment of prisoners through a set of official visitors and non-official visitors drawn from civil society and from significant professions and services.
These BOVs are required to carry out inspections and grievance redressal functions in the prisons and report to the government. However, a CHRI study has revealed that not even 1% of the jails are monitored according to this law.
As Mrinal Sharma, a project officer with the prison reform programme of CHRI, said, “Only 0.6% of the jails have these committees. In absolute numbers, only five of the 1,382 jails are monitored according to law and only four states have constituted such committees for all their jails.”
However, Sharma noted that while people from the civil society and significant professions need to be put in such committees, usually politicians are appointed and they just visit the jails with sweets during festivals.
The situation remained equally dismal when it came to the undertrial review committees, those at the meeting noted. These committees are district-level oversight bodies headed by judicial officers, mandated to review and recommend releases in cases of petty offence, long detentions and in cases where statutory bail is ordained, said CHRI. A report from the organisation on these committees has revealed that only 40% of their meetings complied fully with the Supreme Court guidelines.
Importance of the reforms
CHRI believes these prison visits are very important for a variety of reasons. They lead to inspection of prisons, observation of prison life, documentation of observations, prevention of any violation, improvement of prison conditions and redressal of prisoners’ complaints.
Simply put, these visits reveal if food, water, sanitation and hygiene in jails are in order. They also reveal how vulnerable groups like women, the physically or mentally ill, foreign prisoners, transgender people, juveniles, migrants, dispersed families and minority groups are being treated.
This apart, the visits are crucial in establishing if record books are being maintained properly, if the prison staff is adequately trained and if there are posts that are lying vacant. These visits are also helpful in learning whether the inmates are being tortured, how their cases are being handled, if their working conditions are fine and if they are being given training and provided with education.
CHRI director Sanjoy Hazarika talked about how India did not have a single jail of international standards and how the space for civil society was shrinking across the world as there was pressure to conform to a process. And jails in India, which represent an “area of darkness”, were no exception.
Hazarika said it was also worth remembering that 67% of the jail inmates were undertrials and not convicts.
Using the story of Asifa, a resident of Rajasthan who has been languishing in a jail for several months despite ill-health, and whose family could not meet her during a scheduled court visit as she was not taken because of lack of escort staff which had been deployed for the security of filmstar Amitabh Bachchan during his visit to Ajmer, Sana Das, coordinator of the prisons reform programme at CHRI, questioned what had prevented the courts from releasing her on bail. She also talked about how a fourth of the prisoners in India await their trial even a year after being sent behind bars.
Das pointed out some important statistics which emerged from the Prison Statistics India 2015 report. She said while the prison budgets have gone up 20% since 2014, a large sum of the money out of this remained unspent despite there being a huge need for development work in all jails. This was also ironical since on average, only about Rs 86 per prisoner is spent every day and there is no uniformity here – while Delhi spends Rs 201, Rajasthan spends only Rs 8.
In 14 states, she said, the states have not been spending a single penny on the education of prisoners. Also, there remained nearly 34% vacancy of staff positions, which hampered jail work. This also indicated how the prison system remained a neglected area.
About two-thirds of the prison population in India is still awaiting trial and India is ranked 18 on the list of countries with high undertrial population.
Also, about two-thirds of the prison population comprises scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward class prisoners. But there is no corresponding segregated data on the caste of the prison staff.
Use of RTI
RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak said, “One way to open up the jails is through use of the Right to Information Act. It allows you to seek a visit to the jail as it provides people with the right to inspection. This tool has just not been tried out extensively”. Also, he said, urgent information can be sought using the provisions of life and liberty under the Act.
Nayak also referred to certain difficulties in accessing information from jails, particularly since there is no clarity on the post of the officer in whose name the payment is to be made. Also, state governments often do not have any information about the jail inmates in their jurisdiction, which makes it difficult to learn if a person is in a particular jail.
Former director and senior advisor at CHRI, Maja Daruwala, said access to prisons is one of the keys to open the reforms. However, last year, she said, the Ministry of Home Affairs advisory came calling for a Rs 1 lakh bond to be submitted by the visitors and imposing restrictions on carrying of pen and paper to the prisons. “It was an advisory but some of the states have used it to restrict entry of the civil society,” she said.
Calling for urgent steps to ensure that jails do not remain “schools for criminality” and do not churn out “traumatised and bitter people”, she noted that the archaic Prison Act 1894 is now being amended and National Human Rights Commissions is overseeing the process. A committee has been formed which will recommend to the states what needs to be done.
Noting that CHRI is part of this committee and also of another one which has been formed by Haryana to usher is prison reforms in the state, Daruwala, however, said no real reforms are being seen on the ground yet. “Only a lot of technology is being brought in. But often, as in the case of video-conferencing which wiped out the safeguards of physical production of detainees before the magistrates and judges, it leads to other problems.”
Real reforms, CHRI said, are about how much an organisation or institution has opened up, and if it is being monitored or not. Unfortunately, on both these counts, Indian jails still have a long way to go.