Human Rights

Prison reforms in India are long overdue

In the midst of all the communal madness spreading out in the country, one news report held out some hope, as it relayed our age-old traditions of solidarity and togetherness. To quote from this news report published earlier this week in The Hindustan Times,

“At least 150 Hindu prisoners are observing Roza (fasting) inside Tihar jail, a senior prison officer said. Jail officers said the number of Hindu prisoners who are fasting has increased this year. Last year, 59 Hindu prisoners kept the month-long fast…This year, the number of Hindu inmates fasting has increased to thrice the number compared to last year…In the first week of May, most Hindu prisoners lodged in different jails met their respective jail superintendents and informed them that they, too, would fast during Ramzan. The jail superintendents were, at the time, taking a headcount of the prisoners observing Roza to make the arrangements…Of the 16,665 prisoners spread across different jails of Tihar, at least 2,658 prisoners — that include both Hindus and Muslims — are observing Roza. …Jail officers said the Hindu prisoners gave different reasons why they were observing the fast. Most of them said they were doing it in solidarity for their Muslim friends. May be they did not want to admit that they are turning to religion after coming to prison. We have observed that 80-90% of inmates become religious inside prison. Religion is a way of finding peace. A few said they believe they could be released early if they pray to God.”

Chennai- Central Jail

Inside Chennai Central Jail, Credit: Simply CVR

In fact, this news report also stated that jails see a similar trend during Navratri — the nine-day Hindu festival. Quoting a jail officer, “During Navratri, a large number of Muslim prisoners fast with the Hindu inmates… This is common not only in Tihar but across other prisons as well.”

And tucked in this very report another positive input says that during this month of Ramzan, jail officials have made arrangements for those who are fasting — allowing the religious heads to come to the prison and pray with the inmates. Also Rooh Afza sharbat and dates are well stocked in the various jail canteens.

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How I wish we get to know many more happenings taking place in the interiors of our jails and prisons. If only publications could give as much focus to the jailed lot as they are giving to the not-so-jailed amongst us!

Yes, as citizen of the country we ought to know what is happening inside those high walls, to those who sit languishing and cut-off. Not to overlook a very vital fact to the imprisoned in our country — almost seventy-five percent of the imprisoned are under-trials and with that technically innocent.

Yet, they sit imprisoned for years at a stretch. Frustrated and disgusted with the system, many fade away, some even try to break free, only to be bound once again! We haven’t even bothered to study the crucial ‘why’ inmates try to break free, try their utmost to run away from prison hellholes. Perhaps, they are unable to cope with the overdose of jailed life and cannot pick up the courage to talk about the trauma and stress they are undergoing. Talk to whom? To the jailors who are perhaps themselves bound by the ruthlessness in the very system!

Today, amidst the bogus developmental cries, where’s that required focus on the jails and on those languishing in jails? If the political rulers carried even faint traces of genuine connect with the disadvantaged the first thing they would have done was to reach out to the jailed inmates, at least in terms of reforms. To begin with, they ought to have expanded the very concept and idea of open jails. Let the jailed men and women breath fresh air. Even if they have committed crimes, it does not give the State the sanction to throttle them to death, slowlyand steadily.

In fact, way back in 2003, the then chairman of National Human Rights Commission, Justice A. S. Anand, had focused on the dismal conditions that the jailed face. During my interviews with him, he had detailed the congestion cum overcrowding in prisons, also the trauma faced by the under-trials, because of the delay and hurdles in getting bail.

To quote Justice A. S. Anand from an interview given to me in 2003,

“Yes, nearly 75% of our jail population consists of under-trials, many of whom are innocent… A large number of under-trials languish in jails even after they are granted bail because they are unable to raise the surety amount. In this context, we should consider the release of under-trials on personal bonds.”

Justice Anand had also focused on the plight of the female prisoners. He had mentioned about two specific jails where women prisoners complained of the unavailability of sanitary napkins and with that of poor menstrual hygiene.

Shouldn’t we, the not-so-jailed, question and query: Why jails and prisons are not getting developed and spruced up along the developmental cries? Where is the transparency in the treatment meted out to the jailed? Why shouldn’t a non-governmental agency be allowed to carry out investigative probes? Why is it getting easy for the police and agencies to arrest an innocent and frame charges on him; with which he sits languishing as an under-trial for years to come? Why are details to the jailed under-trials not probed by an independent agency or a watchdog group?

Can there be some degree (not third degree!) of transparency to what’s taking place inside those high walls? Also, how I wish that several of the jailed political prisoners of the day write details to what’s taking place in their jails…detailed to their jailed life. Lets not overlook the fact that in those yesteryears best works were authored by the political who’s who, when they sat jailed.

Lets us not bypass the core fact to the jailed – they are a part and parcel of the society and system that is only furthering the crime graph and not lessening it. Why? Aren’t we, as a collective lot, to be blamed for this! Is our system and society, directly or indirectly, pushing many amongst us towards crime and violence? 

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