Prisons as agents of change

Published : Aug 25, 2006 00:00 IST

At the Geauga County Jail in Chardon, Ohio, a seven-month-old Chihuahua/Rat Terrier mixes with prisoners. Daily interaction with prisoners who exhibit good behaviour is part of the dog's training. -

At the Geauga County Jail in Chardon, Ohio, a seven-month-old Chihuahua/Rat Terrier mixes with prisoners. Daily interaction with prisoners who exhibit good behaviour is part of the dog's training. -

Decision-makers in India can learn from the experiences of other countries and lend more than cursory attention to the state of our prisons.

We know less about safety and abuse in America's prisons and jails than we should. It is simply not enough to be better than we were. We must confront and solve today's problems.

Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons (2006)

MY heart weeps whenever I write about conditions in our prisons. I have been to a few of them at home and abroad. I have always come back terribly depressed, because I know, as do my readers, that there are many in jail who should not be there and an equal number outside, some of whom pride themselves as business leaders, opinion-makers or policy formulators, eminently fit to swap places with them. This is the bitter irony of life, of the criminal justice system in particular. It is, therefore, for us in the community to constantly strive to improve prison conditions so that the injustice meted out to some, who had either been framed or who turned to crime driven purely by a set of adverse circumstances beyond their control, is at least partially repaired.

The widespread indifference to improving jail ambience is often explained away as due to a lack of resources with the government. However, underneath this apathy is the highly questionable conviction, both among politicians and other community leaders, that prisons should not be too comfortable and a term in them should be made as unpleasant as possible so that it acts as a deterrent against a prisoner lapsing back to crime. There is also an unexpressed spirit of retribution that is unethical and condemnable.

I believe strongly that such retribution erases all our claims to progress in the quality of our lives. I am particularly unhappy that there has been no organised effort on the part of our religious leaders to bring pressure on law-makers to make our prisons more humane. I am more than convinced that some of these leaders could make a difference, if only they forged a united movement.

The immediate provocation for this outburst on prisons is the recent judicial verdict on a gory incident that took place in a Young Offenders Institution in the United Kingdom six years ago. Zahid Mubarek, a 19-year-old youth of Walthamstow, East London, was bludgeoned to death by cellmate Robert Stewart (20). Mubarek was serving a 90-day sentence for allegedly stealing razorblades worth 6 (Rs.450 approximately) and for interfering with a motor vehicle. This was the first time he was ever in prison. In contrast, Stewart had a record of 18 convictions for 71 offences. While the former was just hours away from discharge, the latter was awaiting trial for harassment charges.

Nothing could have been more unimaginative, a first-time offender made to share accommodation with a hardened youth with a huge record. (Incidentally, this happens every other day in most of our prisons but does not get reported. A lack of thought and shrinking prison spaces are immediate reasons for this appalling situation.) Worse was the wanton indifference of the Young Offenders Institution's managers to Mubarek's plea for a transfer to another cell. To cap it all, Stewart's state of fragile mental health was known to the officials. A registered mental health nurse who had examined him and another prisoner, Maurice Travis, whom Stewart admired, believed both were dangerous.

The nurse found Stewart in particular to be suffering from a "long-standing and deep-rooted personality disorder". Surprisingly, he recommended no action, such as keeping Stewart away from the others. There is evidence in the form of letters penned by Stewart, while at the institution, that he was downright racist and waiting for an opportunity to do bodily harm to a coloured person like Mubarek. It is hard to believe that this was not known to those who were running the place.

Stewart has been punished for the murder of Mubarek and is now undergoing life sentence. More significant was the Law Lords launching a judicial probe into the incident, overturning the then Home Secretary David Blunkett's opposition. Justice Keith, who conducted the inquiry, submitted a report in June that left no one in doubt. There was, in his view, something rotten with the system, which needed immediate fixing. He identified 19 officials whose blunders had led to the tragedy. In his 692-page report he described the system as one that suffered from "a cocktail of poor communications and shoddy work practices". Justice Keith was categorical that prison officers, medical authorities and a probation officer had either failed to identify Stewart as dangerous or pass on such information to others who could have acted to isolate him. He called for further spending on prisons and an end to forced cell sharing. His criticism of religious intolerance in prisons is likely to lead to new measures to protect religious minorities in U.K. prisons.

More bad news to those who administer prisons in the country comes from another report that says there is substantial corruption among prison officials. According to a study conducted recently by the Prison Service's anti-corruption unit and London's Metropolitan Police, about 1,000 prison officials in England and Wales help smuggle phones and drugs for prisoners for a consideration. (This is a malaise that is widely prevalent in India's prisons as well.) What is more distressing is the finding that at least 500 officials had inappropriate relationships with prisoners.

Another interesting development, which can be an eye-opener to policy makers in India, is with regard to the handling of women convicts. There are about 4,500 women prisoners in England and Wales - against a total prison population of about 78,000 - and the figure is expected to go up because of a stricter minimum-sentencing policy. Larger numbers of women in prison could push up suicides and instances of sexual abuse, two problems that are rampant in many prisons in England and Wales.

One third of the women in prison are credited with one or more attempts at suicide. About 70 per cent have an identified mental health problem. This distressing situation has fuelled a radical movement in favour of abolition of women's prisons. This is spearheaded by the Howard League, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the U.K. that has many reforms to its credit. The League would prefer an alternative arrangement to hold women prisoners in a setting that is less rigorous than a regular prison. Its demand is that custody should be only for the violent and dangerous among women prisoners, while the others receive community sentences.

Official response has not been unkindly if one considers the fact that at least three women's prisons have been converted in the past to cope with a galloping number of men convicts. Also, it is likely that the existing 15 women's prisons will be shut in a phased manner in the course of the next five years.

Prisons in the U.S. are equally notorious for many abuses. The daily prison population nationally is a staggering 2.2 million, distributed in about 5,000 centres. Violence on inmates by prison officials and violence unleashed by inmates themselves mark the scene. A generally well-behaved prisoner undergoes his term under constant fear of being assaulted by a fellow-inmate. Prison officials, too, share this psychosis, if one takes into account the bloody riots that take place periodically in U.S. prisons and which have been captured dramatically by many powerful Hollywood movies.

The problem has been investigated and analysed by several agencies and commissions. The most recent is the 20-member blue-ribbon Commission appointed by the Vera Institute of Justice, New York, with John Gibbon, former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, and Nicholas de Katzenbach, former Deputy Attorney-General, as Co-Chairmen. It held four public hearings and recorded the testimony of 100 eminent American citizens.

In its June report entitled "Confronting Confinement", the Gibbon-Katzenbach Commission highlighted the gravity of what is happening inside prisons, and demanded increased resources that would steady the situation. The Commission was appalled by the degree of violence and abuse that characterised confinement, and the poor record keeping on violence inside prisons. It did not buy the claim of some States that they did not have any violence at all during some years. One of its key recommendations was the standardisation of reporting across the country so that there is no fudging of records.

In its view, while reducing overcrowding was one way of tackling the problem of prison violence, more effective could be a strategy that focussed on promoting the productivity of prisoners and their rehabilitation after discharge. I am struck by the Commission's emphasis on continual contact of prisoners with their families, which would give them a stake in good behaviour. Undue rigidity in permitting visitors, especially close relations, is the result of a perceived administrative difficulty in the process. Not many administrators realise that they buy a bigger problem of misconduct and violence by prisoners frustrated by their inability to be in touch with their near and dear ones.

Another aspect of jails that has not received the attention it deserves is health care. One estimate is that nearly 1.5 million prisoners with life-threatening contagious diseases are discharged and sent into the community each year from U.S. prisons. This is compounded by the fact that nearly 350,000 prisoners have some mental disorder or the other. The Commission recommended extending the Medicaid and Medicare programmes to prisons, putting an end to the current system of debiting inmates for at least a part of the expense involved in their treatment.

Increasing the number of doctors attached to prisons was another suggestion. Many prisons with a population of 5,000 or more had each just three or four doctors. Also, the quality of the doctors left much to be desired; many of them had a licence to treat only prisoners and were not good enough to treat the community. There cannot be a sadder commentary on the kind of care prisoners can expect to receive from such inexperienced doctors. One crucial recommendation was the creation of an independent agency in every State to oversee constantly prison conditions. This may not cure all evils in the system, but it can act as a deterrent against the blatant abuse and ill-treatment of prisoners.

I know that cynics in our country would respond to this column saying that the experiences and experiments of the U.K. and the U.S. are not relevant to India. They cannot be farther from the truth. All three countries are democracies based on administrative accountability. They have faith in human rights, although each has been guilty of aberrations at some point of time or the other. Each has a criminal justice system founded on the supremacy of the rule of law. The three countries may at best vary in terms of resources available to carry out far-reaching reforms in vital sectors such as prison management.

In my perception there is a common thread that binds them, namely, the sanctity of an individual's dignity. This is why I would plead with decision-makers in the country to learn from the experiences of other countries and lend more than cursory attention to the state of our prisons. A little more sensitivity on their part can make a remarkable difference. We have some enlightened Chief Ministers who can also go down in history as humane and compassionate if only they work towards making our prisons civilised centres that motivate a prisoner to attempt self-improvement. Such a positive approach to a complex social problem would not only bring about a qualitative improvement to prison management but also enhance the country's image in the comity of nations.

Perhaps the greatest gratification to many of us would be that a civilised system of treating our prisoners would lend substance to what the Father of the Nation once stood for.

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