In a case Shri Rama Murthy vs State of Karnataka (1996), a prisoner sent a letter to the supreme court on the grievance of jail matter, to which court admitted as a writ petition. In this case, court took the opportunity to discuss major problems of Indian prisons and also gave suggestions regarding the same.
This problems and suggestions may be categorised as follows-
Nine Major Problem of present Indian prison system
The literature on prison justice and prison reform shows that there are nine major problems which afflict the system and which need immediate attention. These are:
- delay in trial
- torture and ill- treatment;
- neglect of health and hygiene;
- insubstantial food and inadequate clothing
- prison vices;
- deficiency in communication;
- streamlining of jail visits; and
- management of open air prisons.
Our jails are overcrowded is a known fact. Though the fact is known, what is not known is the controversy as to whether overcrowding itself violates any constitutional right. This question arises because overcrowding contributes to a greater risk of disease, higher noise levels, surveillance difficulties, which increases the danger level. This apart, life is more difficult for inmates and work more onerous for staff when prisoners are in over capacity.
Even if overcrowding be not constitutionally impermissible, there is no doubt that the same does affect the health of prisoners for the reason noted above. The same also very adversely affects hygienic condition. It is, therefore, to be taken care of.
There is yet another baneful effect of overcrowding. The same is that it does not permit segregation among convicts – Those punished for serious offences and for minor. The result may be that hardened criminals spread their influence over others. Then, juvenile offenders kept in jails (because of inadequacy of alternative places where they are required to be confined) get mixed up with others and they are likely to get spoiled further.
it would be useful to refer here to the Seventy-Eighth Report of the Law commission of Indian on `Congestion of Undertrial Prisoners in Jails’. The Commission has in Chapter 9 of the Report made some recommendations acceptance of which would relieve congestion in jails. These suggestions include liberalisation of conditions of release on bail.
It may be pointed out that it has already been held by Supreme Court in Babu Singh vs. State of U.P., AIR 1978 SC 527; and Gurbaksh Singh Sibbia vs. State of Punjab, AIR 1980 SC 1632 that imposing of unjust or harsh conditions, while granting bail, are violative of Article 21, 20A.
Overcrowding may also be taken care of by taking recourse to alternatives to incarceration. These being: (1) fine; (2) civil commitment; and (3) probation.
Overcrowding is reduced by releases on parole as well, which is a conditional release of an individual from prison after he has served part of the sentence imposed upon him.
Delay in Trial
It is apparent that delay in trial finds an undertrial prisoner (UTP) in jail for a longer period while awaiting the decision of the case. Delay cause in most cases due to non-production of UTPs in courts on remand dates.
It has to be remembered that production before the court on remand dates is a statutory obligation and the same has a meaning also inasmuch as that the production gives an opportunity to the prisoner to bring to the notice of the Court, who had ordered for his custody, if he has faced any ill-treatment or difficulty during the period of remand. It is for this reason that actual production of the prisoner is required to be insured by the trial court before ordering for further remand, as pointed out in a number of decisions by this Court.
We are also conscious of the fact that police force in the country is rather over-worked. It has manifold duties to perform. In such a situation it is a matter for consideration whether the duty of producing UTP on remand dates should not be entrusted to the prison staff. To enable the prison staff to do so, it would, however, need escorts vehicles.
Torture and ill-treatment
There are horror stories in this regard. The cellular jail on Port Blair resounds with the cries of the prisoners who were subject to various forms of torture. This is now being brought home in the Light and Sound programme being organised in that jail, which after Independence has been declared as a national monument. Other jails would also tell similar stories.
Apart from torture, various other physical ill- treatment like putting of fetters, iron bars are generally taken recourse to in jails. Some of these are under the colour of provisions in Jail Manuals. The permissible limits of these methods has been spelt out well in many earlier decisions of this Court.
What is being done to prisoners in the above regard is to enforce prison discipline mentioned in various Jail Manuals, there exists a strong need for a new All India Jail Manual to serve as a model for the country, which Manual would take note of what has been said about various punishments by this Court.
Not only this, the century old Indian Prison Act, 1894, needs a through look and is required to be replaced by a new enactment which would take care of the thinking of the Independent India and of our constitutional morose and mandate.
Neglect of health and hygiene
Most of the jails lack proper facilities for treatment of prisoners. But, society has an obligation towards prisoners’ health for two reasons.
First, the prisoners do not enjoy the access to medical expertise that free citizens have. Their incarceration places limitations on such access; no physician of choice, no second opinions, and few if any specialists.
Secondly, because of the conditions of their incarceration, inmates are exposed to more health hazards than free citizens. Prisoners therefore, suffer from a double handicap.
Insubstantial food and inadequate clothing
There is not much to doubt that the rules contained in concerned Jail Manual dealing with food and clothing etc. to be given to prisoners are not fully complied with always.
All that can usefully he said on this aspect is the persons who are entitled to inspect jails should do so after giving shortest notice so that the reality becomes known on inspection. The system of complaint box introduced in Tihar Jail during some period needs to be adopted in other jails also.
The complaint received must be fairly inquired and appropriate actions against the delinquent must be taken. On top of all, prisoners must receive full assurance that whoever would lodge a complaint would not suffer any evil consequence for lodging the same.
Deficiency in communication
While in jail, communication with outside world gets snapped with a result that the inmate does not know what is happening even to his near and dear ones. This causes additional trauma. A liberalised view relating to communication with kith and kin specially is desirable. It is hoped that the model All India Jail Manual, about the need of which we have already adverted, would make necessary provision in this regard.
Streamlining of jail visits
Prison visits fall into three categories:
- relatives and friends;
- professionals; and
- lay persons.
In the first category comes the spouse. Visit by him/her has special significance because a research undertaken on Indian prisoners sometime back showed that majority of them were in the age group of 18 to 34, which shows that most of them were young and were perhaps having a married life before their imprisonment. For such persons, denial of conjugal life during the entire period of incarceration creates emotional problems also. Visits by a spouse is, therefore, of great importance.
It is, of course, correct that at times visit may become a difficult task for the visitors. This would be so where prisoners are geographically isolated. This apart, in many jails facilities available to the visitors are degrading. At many places even privacy is not maintained. If the offenders and visitors are screened, the same emphasises their separation rather than retaining common bonds and interests. There is then urgent need to streamline these visits.
Management of open air prisons
Open air prisons play an important role in the scheme of reformation of a prisoner which has to be one of the desideratum of prison management. They represent one of the most successful applications of the principle of individualization of penalties with a view to social readjustment as stated by B. Chandra in the Preface to his book titled “Open Air Prisons”.
It has been said so because release of offenders on probation, home leave to prisoners, introduction of wage system, release on parole, educational, moral and vocational training of prisoners are some of the features of the open air prison (camp) system.
Open air prison, however, create their own problem which are basically of management.
A pragmatic balanced approach towards prisoners
Constitutional rights of the prisoners shall have to be interpreted in such a way that larger public interest does not suffer while trying to be soft and considerate towards the prisoners. For this, it has to be seen that more injury than is necessary is not caused to a prisoner. At the same time efforts have to be made to reform him so that when he comes out of prison he is a better citizen and not a hardened criminal.
Let us, therefore, resolve to improve our prison system by introducing new techniques of management and by educating the prison staff with our constitutional obligations towards prisoners. Rest would follow, as day follows the night. Let the dawning ray (of hope) see the end of gloom cast on the faces of majority of prisoners and let a new awakening percolate every prison wall. Let it be remembered that “where there is will, there is way”. Will there is, way would be found.
 Shri Rama Murthy vs State Of Karnataka (1996)