Why We All Need a Reminder About Prisoners' Rights

The societal impulse to morally indict prisoners is unconstitutional – something the courts and people in general seem to have forgotten.

Chennai Central Prison, 2009. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Chennai Central Prison, 2009. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The death of Ramkumar in Chennai Central Prison on September 18 became one of 1700 deaths that occur in Indian prisons each year. The dramatic increase in deaths may be the result of a malfunctioning criminal justice system. Since 2001, prison deaths have increased from 978 to 1704 in 2014 – a 74% rise; the number of suicides has gone up from 38 to 94 – a 147% increase; while the number of unnatural deaths has risen from 94 to 195, a 107% increase. These numbers are in addition to 82 ‘uncategorised’ deaths. These figures are significant because the average prison population has only increased by 33%. But most of these deaths are not judicially accounted for. While systemic failure is an abstract concept, the loss of life among citizens is real. The nearly collapsed justice delivery is yielding consequences but who is paying the price?

In Rama Murthy v. State of Karnataka (1997) case, the Supreme Court identified nine issues concerning prisons, such as overcrowding, trials being delayed, the torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, neglect of health and hygiene, insubstantial food and inadequate clothing. In 2013, after nearly two decades, the apex court expressed regret (W. P. No.406/2013) about the fact that most of these problems remained unresolved. With Ramkumar’s death, the context may be new but the increasing number of unnatural deaths is gravely concerning, as ex-chief justice L. R. Lahoti pointed out. The court lamented that prisoners are “kept under conditions that are unacceptable”.

How did we get here?

There is a need to reflect on the increasingly subhuman conditions in our prisons. The fundamental reason for this situation could be society’s increasingly tough stance against crime. Take for instance, citizens’ responses to Ramkumar’s demise. The comments reflect public opinion on the issue of deaths in prisons. The views broadly fall under two categories: those who think such an abrupt end to life is justified and those who oppose this view. The majority of the opinions expressed have explicitly or implicitly justified Ramkumar’s death. The views range from a desire for his death to disregard for his vulnerable social background. The action of the police is openly applauded by citizens. People made such comments even when Ramkumar was tried and found guilty. But a 2005 study on prison deaths in Andhra Pradesh found that 87% of the 129 deaths examined in the study were from Dalit, Adivasi or other backward caste community and Muslims. Additionally, 60% of the dead prisoners were illiterate.

The opinion that following due process of law is a wastage of taxpayers money is gaining currency day by day and reflects the illiberal political atmosphere of our times. This was particularly obvious in discussions about Rajkumar’s conviction for murder, admittedly a serious crime, but it is unlikely that such opinions would be any different in the case of smaller crimes. On the other hand, the case prompted those who hold nuanced liberal views to express despair over the breakdown of India’s judicial system. In any case, illiberal public opinion seems to be hardening the system against citizens who are considered deviants.

A prisoner’s right to life

Article 21 of the constitution mandates that no citizen’s life and liberty can be taken away except according to prescribed legal procedure. The article implicitly expects there to be an appropriate criminal justice system to implement the spirit of this article. But the criminal justice system has been unprepared to meet this mandate and yet it has been forced to deliver somehow. It is no secret that the judicial system has been handling more crimes than it is capable of, bringing it to the bring of collapse. (1988: Justice Desai). It can only dispose of as many cases as the standards of adjudication permit. The system’s ability to stretch itself is not inexhaustible, yet it has been handling exponential increases in crime. Is this possible without compromising on judicial standards? The nature of compromises may not be openly visible to us so far, but now we do not seem to care for the standards either. This is what indicates the growing illiberal public opinion on deaths in prisons.

The lack of an adequate police escort to take prisoners to courts and hospitals is widely acknowledged but the cumulative impact of many legal inadequacies is neither examined nor accounted for. The approach of inquiries into these deaths generally tends to focus on fixing individual responsibilities, while actual causes could be beyond the individual realm. As a result, the systemic failures are not explicitly acknowledged.

Article 21 conceptualises life and liberty as inseparable from each other. But there are exceptions to this understanding. When an offender’s life is taken away through death penalty, the offender’s liberty is automatically extinguished as well. But when it comes to people who are under trial, such as Ramkumar, the law only permits the state to take away their freedom not life. The constitutional sanctity of their right to life is supposed to remain intact. But in practice, it appears that when they lose their liberty, their lives are automatically lost too. If this is not the law, then prisoners’ right to life should be protected at any cost. Every death in prison needs to be accounted for as long as the preservation of life and liberty is the constitutional mandate and its opposite is the exception.

Ethically, governments are more responsible for preserving the lives of incarcerated people than free citizens since governments have limited access to free citizens. Citizens’ right to life falls within the boundary of civil society, whereas prisoners’ right to life is constrained along with their liberties. They have no freedom care for themselves and are totally dependent on the government. This dependency invariably transfers their right to life to their custodian. Prisoners are completely dependent on the system. Does this dependency justify the death of prisoners, even implicitly? The death of a prisoner fails to invoke any moral outrage from the public, given its convictions about innocence and credibility of the lives lost. It is our ethical imperative to feed a cat in captivity regardless of its innocence. The helplessness rather than the moral credibility of a caged person should determine how he or she is treated. A state that has the power to take a citizen’s freedom also has an ethical obligation to safeguard that citizen’s life. Nothing short of this mandate is an acceptable norm in democratic governance.

Murali Karnam teaches at the School of Law, Rights and Constitutional Governance, TISS, Mumbai