Insights into Editorial: Ripe for prison reform
In an acknowledgment that the more than a century-old system of prisons in India needs repair.
In this context, Supreme Court, formed a committee on prison reforms. Headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice Amitava Roy, it is to look into the entire gamut of reforms to the prison system.
But this is not the first time that such a body is being set up, examples being the Justice A.N. Mulla committee and the Justice Krishna Iyer committee on women prisoners (both in the 1980s).
While marginal reforms have taken place, these have not been enough to ensure that prison conditions are in tune with human rights norms.
What should be the Objective of Punishment: Punish or reform?
The crux of the debate: incarceration in any form is uncivilised, especially when it is so long-drawn-out, and when the objective of criminal punishment should be one of reform rather than wreaking vengeance on a perpetrator of crime.
The objective of the criminal punishment is to reform or vengeance on the perpetrator of crime is to be made clear.
It is also about the unresolved conflict in attitudes about incarceration punishment or reform which also explains the halfway jail reforms agenda seen in many countries.
The terms of reference for the new committee are omnibus and seem ambitious. The committee formation comes at a time when controversy surrounds the Tamil Nadu government’s recommendation that the seven convicts in the assassination, in 1991, of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi be released.
The plea of the petitioners is that however heinous the crime, the penalty imposed they have served 27 years was beyond endurance.
Reasons for Overcrowding in Jails:
In India, the publication, Prison Statistics India, brought out by the National Crime Records Bureau will provide food for thought for the Justice Roy Committee.
In 2015, there were nearly 4.2 lakh inmates in 1,401 facilities, with an average occupancy rate of 114% in most.
About 67% of total inmates were undertrials, a commentary on the speed and efficiency of India’s criminal justice system.
- Occupancy by under trials– 67% of the people in Indian jails are under trials which is extremely high by international standards like it is 11% in UK, 20% in US and 29% in France .
- Males at 400,855 make up 95.8% of prisoners while females at 17,681 represent 4.2%.
- Judicial backlogs-Due to 1 crore cases (2016) pending in various courts of the country, jails across the country will remain overcrowded in the absence of any effective systemic intervention.
- Inadequate prison capacity- Most Indian prisons were built in the colonial era, are in constant need of repair and part of them are uninhabitable for long periods.
- Restricted access to legal representatives-Many inmates are unaware of their rights and cannot afford legal aid, limited ability to communicate with lawyers from within the jail premises hampers their ability to defend themselves.
- Problems in acquiring bail – For poor and marginalized it is also difficult to get bail which leaves them no option but to stay in jails and wait for courts final order.
- Unnecessary arrests: Over 60 per cent of arrests were unnecessary and such arrests accounted for 3 per cent of jail expenditure.
Prison Reforms are not coming for Implementation:
The question often asked by governments is, in these days of extreme fiscal stress, why should state resources be diverted to a ‘negative exercise, whose benefits are dubious’?
There are those who believe that if you keep improving prison conditions, there is likely to be an attendant impact on the incidence of crime.
This accounts for the reluctance of many criminal justice administrators to employ or enlarge non-prison alternatives such as community service.
The offshoot of all this is growing numbers of prisoners and the woeful incapacity of governments to build more and larger prisons.
This is why jail officials are often asked to ‘somehow manage’ with existing modest facilities.
Packed to the gills in jails:
The data on prison overcrowding are frightening. Except in parts of Europe, where crime is still low or at acceptable levels, overcrowding is rampant.
In the U.S., for example, which has a humongous crime problem, complicated by gun violence and a strident racist overtone in combating crime, the prison system is creaking under the stress of numbers.
There is an obvious poverty of ideas in justice administration. While public officials and social workers are agreed upon the need to reduce overcrowding, there is hardly any convergence on how to go about this delicate exercise.
Handling white collar crimes:
There is a popular view that in order to reduce prison populations, proven non-violent offenders could be dealt with differently.
White collar crime has assumed monstrous proportions but there is no reason why we should continue to lock up offenders instead of merely depriving them of their illegal gains.
Devising swift processes of attachment of properties and freezing of bank accounts are alternatives to a jail term.
The argument that not all gains made by an economic offender are open is not convincing enough to opt for incarceration over punitive material penalties.
In India, progress has been made in freezing ‘benami’ holdings of major offenders even though it may not be a 100% effective step of cleaning up.
But these are the first steps towards making economic crimes unaffordable and unattractive for the average offender.
Prison officials and political will:
Another complaint against prisons is the brutality and venality of prison officials, again common across the world. A solution will be a point to ponder over for the Justice Roy Committee.
Finally, improving prison conditions has no political leverage. Just as humane prisons do not win votes, the bad ones do not lose votes for any political party.
As long as there are no stakes here for lawmakers, one can hardly hope for model prisons, where inmates are accommodated with due regard to their basic human needs and are handled with dignity.
More than a century-old system of prisons in India needs an urgent repair.
Overcrowding, more number of undertrials than convicted prisoners, delayed justice, inhumane conditions, brutality and lack of basic human need facilities are some of the major issues in Indian prisons.
Justice Amitava Roy committee is a ray of hope in the direction of prison reforms, but without political reforms in India’s criminal justice system are impossible.