The hell that is prison

Print edition : December 31, 2004

If prisons are to become humane and reformative, their management needs basic reforms.

ON December 8, 2004, the Patna High Court created history of sorts by organising a sweep of the 55 jails in Bihar. All right-thinking citizens would compliment the court for this bold and unparalleled operation that yielded contraband, including mobile phones smuggled in by dons lodged inside to carry on their routines outside with gay abandon. As I write this column, comes the news that one of the infamous prisoners of the Beur jail in Patna had used his phone to be in touch with influential personalities in government, about the same time the place was being raided with the help of the Bihar Military Police (BMP). I earnestly hope that other High Courts will emulate the courage that the Patna Bench has displayed.

The question that should bother us is why have we come to such a pass when a High Court has had to act like a policeman. People knowledgeable about prisons believe that this kind of strike was well merited, although they are sceptical that such ad hoc action repeated too often will be productive. Prison management needs basic reforms and not quick-fix solutions if prisons are to become humane and reformative, very different from the hellholes and centres of corruption and cruelty they are now. At present, such reforms exist as a distant dream.

Three basic problems need to be tackled in order to humanise the prison. Mind you, the idea is to "humanise", and not make prisons a comfortable place to which you would like to return after release, only because you do not have the means or inclination to live in society. Actually, why conditions in prisons are so appalling is mostly because of the mind-set of some policymakers that prisons need to deter a prisoner from lapsing into crime again. As long as we have such people at decision-making levels, things will just not change.

The three issues that need top priority are: overcrowding, low morale of prison officials leading to corruption in prisoner management, and poorly designed programmes to transform prisoner thinking on crime and deviance. In my view, the first has a great impact on the other two factors. Prison overcrowding is the fountainhead of most of the ills. It is poor consolation that we share this shortcoming with many other countries, especially the United States, a nation that is accused by well-meaning people of incarcerating far too many. The current estimate is that there are nearly two million prisoners there, establishing a rate of 482 per 100,000 of the population. This number, in a Bureau of Justice (BJS) estimate, is said to be growing annually by 3.5 per cent. The bias in the system is all too obvious if you reckon that at the end of 2003 there were 3,405 black male prisoners in U.S. prisons per 100,000 black males in the country. Again, BJS figures show that during 2003, State prisons accommodated 16 per cent more prisoners than they were equipped to. The excess in respect of Federal prisons was nearly 40 per cent. These figures would give an idea of the dimension of the problem.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in New Delhi brings out an annual publication Prison Statistics India. The Bureau has figures only up to the end of 2001, when there were 1,119 prisons, a majority of which were sub-jails (671) holding predominantly under-trial prisoners. Our prison capacity is approximately 230,000. During 2001, this was exceeded by nearly 37 per cent. This reflects the enormity of the tasks that weigh down the average prison official. At the end of the year, there were nearly 220,000 under-trials in detention. This was 71 per cent of all prisoners.

Obviously, if prison overcrowding has to be brought down, the under-trial population has to be reduced drastically. This, of course, cannot happen without the courts and the police working in tandem. Readers would now understand how the three wings of the criminal justice system would have to act in harmony, if the current mess that the criminal justice system is has to be cleared. Too many under-trial prisoners are a blot on those who administer justice in the country.

Speedy trials are frustrated by a heavy court workload, police inability to produce witnesses promptly and a recalcitrant defence lawyer who is bent upon seeking adjournments, even if dilatory tactics harm his client. Fast track courts have helped to an extent, but have not made a measurable difference to the problem of pendency. Increasing the number of courts cannot bring about a desired difference as long as the current `adjournments culture' continues.

The next question that we should ask ourselves is: are courts punishing far too many? This question is relevant mainly to the U.S. where the trend is one of enlarging the number of offences for which there is a mandatory jail sentence. The success rate of prosecutions in that country is also high. We do not have this phenomenon. Although our numbers per se are forbidding, conviction rates are low (41 per cent in 2002). What is of concern is the high rate of pendency in courts. For instance, a 2002 NCRB study (Crime in India 2002) revealed that nearly 220,000 cases took more than three years in court, and about 25,600 exhausted 10 years for trial to be completed. Can there be a sadder commentary on our system? Not many get bail during trial, because they are too poor to get bonds executed in their favour for a release. Is this fair at all when we often speak of `social justice'?

There is only one way we can take care of the huge under-trial backlog. It is to make bail more easily available. Hardliners would say that many so released would make themselves scarce and not come back to face trial. A survey of the prison population at any time would reveal a staggering number of those inside prisons who have already spent a term longer than the most rigorous sentence that they could ever be awarded at the end of trial for the offence committed by them. It is not my case that we should extend this liberal bail to those charged with murder/attempt to murder or rape. Lesser offences merit this treatment, for reasons of expediency if not clemency. Several countries have tried a general amnesty, without much of an adverse impact on the overall crime situation. Incidentally, recidivism in India is at a manageable 7 per cent, and the trend is on the decline. A combination of liberal bail and a scheme of amnesty for those not facing charges of violence, against either individuals or the State, and have been incarcerated at least for a year is definitely warranted, if jails are to become manageable. Nothing else would work. This, however, calls for great political will and sagacity.

ONE more measure that can at least marginally help improve the situation is to legislate for alternatives to incarceration. This is nothing unusual, and several experiments the world over have yielded encouraging results. Community service is one option that has been found practical and also effective in paving the path for reforming an offender. This can take several forms such as work at a hospital or a de-addiction centre or a school that is short of personnel and can benefit from volunteers.

Unfortunately, those who administer prisons on a day-to-day basis lack motivation. Like policemen in the field, they are weighed down by unhygienic and tough working conditions compounded by poor career prospects. Corruption is the order of the day, not because these personnel are of low moral fibre, but because the infrastructure available to them is abysmal. When they are expected to manage a population that is 30 per cent in excess of what is authorised, they naturally resort to ingenious and questionable methods. This is no condonation of corruption, but a mere explanation of it. According to one account of the country's most famous prison, Tihar Jail, young boys are picked up at random from the city and forced to work in the jail to overcome labour shortfalls. I presume this undesirable practice is not confined to Tihar. Stealing of supplies to prisons leading to sub-standard food for inmates is another complaint. Seeking sexual favours from women prisoners is not an unknown happening. Allowing prisoners to enjoy facilities such as home food, indiscriminate number of visitors (as in the case of Pappu Yadav in Bihar, which the Apex Court has handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate) and the use of a mobile phone to which they are not entitled are some of routine deviations from the jail manual we know of.

It will be unfair to the government, especially the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi, to say that there have been no initiatives to bring about the much-needed reforms. One of the first bodies was the All India Commission for Jail Reforms (popularly known as the Mulla Committee, after its Chairman Justice A.N. Mulla) that spent three years (1980-83) preparing a model Prison Bill to replace the Prisons Act of 1894. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also came out with a model Bill in 1996 for the benefit of the States. Its emphasis was on the human rights of prisoners, an area of great concern because of the horror stories of physical abuse that keep coming out at periodic intervals. In 1998, the Home Ministry circulated a draft Bill to the States, a few of which have come out with new legislation. Rajasthan was one such State, which incorporated a whole chapter on the Rights and Duties of Prisoners in its Rajasthan Prisons Act, 2001.

Following a Supreme Court direction (1996) in Ramamurthy vs State of Karnataka to bring about uniformity nationally of prison laws and prepare a draft model prison manual, a committee was set up for this purpose in the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D). The jail manual drafted by the committee was accepted by the Central government and circulated to State governments in late December 2003. How many have acted on it is anybody's guess. As in the case of the recommendations of the National Police Commission (1977), which had sought the creation of a State Security Commission and the promulgation of a new Police Act to replace the 1861 enactment, implementing jail reform recommendations rests with the States. The Home Ministry can do precious little if there is no political will on the part of States to push through both police and prison reforms. Politically speaking, the latter reforms are less sensitive and controversial, and possibly therefore, more acceptable to the States.

FINALLY, how do we ensure that prisoners do not go back to offending after release? How do we enhance prisoner skills so that he or she is enabled to take up a vocation that brings in assured regular income? More importantly, how do we inculcate in them a set of values that place emphasis on the dignity of labour and the wisdom of strengthening one's ties with the community in which he or she lives? These are eternal questions that have agitated those enlightened souls who view incarceration not as retribution but a means to win the mind of a convict and channel it along constructive lines. This is important, especially in the context of studies the world over which tell us that crime does not necessarily come down as a result of high incarceration rates.

Well-established prisons with continuous good leadership generally impart literacy to the illiterate inmate and offer facilities for higher education to those who are already reasonably educated and are willing to improve on their knowledge so that they are usefully employed after getting back to the community.

Kiran Bedi, the celebrated police official, introduced several measures to light up the lives of those languishing in Tihar Jail when she headed the jail administration a few years ago. There is now a centre each of the Indira Gandhi Open University (IGNOU) and the National Open School at Tihar that provides educational opportunities for inmates. Bedi is credited with the 3C model of prison management which encompasses corrective, collective and community-led initiatives. Vipaasana meditation for prisoners picked up momentum during her tenure, and the feedback from those who benefited by it is impressive. By all accounts, her approach paid rich dividends and made Tihar a model prison after shedding its earlier sordid image. I know Bedi has many detractors who disapprove of her high profile. But then, great innovations come from such dynamic personalities rather than those who play safe and go by the book. We need more Bedis who would at least try and fail rather than not try at all. We definitely do not want arm-chair critics who are known only for their sniping.

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