October 2, 2022

Classification of Prisoners- Is it legal to classify Prisoners in ‘Better’ and ‘Ordinary’ class? 

Reforms in Criminal Justice system

Generally, we see that police adopts different behavior for different type of prisoners. But, is this legal under Indian law to do so?

Supreme Court had the occasion to end this type of classes among prisoners in the case of Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration[1].

This petition came into existence when a prisoner of Tihar, ‘Prem Shankar shukla’ sent a letter to a judge of Supreme Court against the handcuffing of undertrial prisoners.

The brief message he sent runs thus:

In spite of Court order and directions of your Lordship in Sunil Batra v. Delhi, handcuffs are forced on me and others. Admit writ of Habeas Corpus.”

Petitioner’s contention that he is from better class prisoners

He further contended before the court he is from better class prisoners so he can’t be handcuffed according to the Police rules.

The petitioner contends that his social status, family background and academic qualifications warrant his being treated as a better class prisoner and added that the court had directed that for that reason he be not handcuffed.

He also stated that under the relevant rules better class prisoners are exempt from handcuffs and cites in support the view of the High Court of Delhi that a better class under-trial should not be handcuffed without recording of reasons in the daily diary for considering the necessity for the use of handcuffs.

Punjab Police Rules 1943

When this petition was presented, these were the rules of Punjab Police that ‘Better Class’ under-trial prisoners would receive more respectable treatment in the sense that they shall not be handcuffed unless it is necessary for safe custody Moreover, when handcuffing better class under-trials, the officer concerned shall record the reasons for considering the use of handcuffs necessary.

Basis of the classification

Under-trial prisoners were divided into two classes based on previous standard of living. The classifying authority was the trying court subject to the approval of the District Magistrate, but during the period before a Classification of under-prisoner was brought before a trial prisoner, competent court, discretion was to be exercised by the officer in charge of the Police Station concerned to classify him as either ‘better class’ or ‘ordinary’.

Only those prisoners used to be classified provisionally as ‘better class’ who by social status, education or habit of life have been accustomed to a superior mode of living. The fact, that the prisoner is to be tried for the commission of any particular class of offence was not to be considered.

The possession of a certain degree of literacy was in itself not sufficient for ‘better class’ classification and no under-trial prisoner shall be so classified whose mode of living did not appear to the Police officer concerned to have definitely superior to that of the ordinary run of the population, whether urban or rural.

Under-trial prisoners classified as ‘better class’ used to be given the different diet.

Court’s Decision

However, the court declared such rules as unfair and bad law and said that,

“It is unconscionable, indeed, outrageous, to make the strange classification between better class prisoners and ordinary prisoners in the matter of handcuffing. This elitist concept has no basis except that on the assumption the ordinary Indian is a sub-citizen and freedoms under Part III of the constitution are the privilege of the upper sector of society.”

“Apart from the fact that economic and social importance cannot be the basis for classifying prisoners for purposes of handcuffs or otherwise, how can we assume that a rich criminal or under- trial is any different from a poor or pariah convict or under-trial in the matter of security risk?

An affluent in custody may be as dangerous or desperate as an indigent, if not more. He may be more prone to be rescued than an ordinary person. We hold that it is arbitrary and irrational to classify, prisoners for purposes of handcuffs, into ‘B’ class and ordinary class. No one shall be fettered in any form based on superior class differentia, as the law treats them equally.

It is unconscionable, indeed, outrageous, to make the strange classification between better class prisoners and ordinary prisoners in the matter of handcuffing. This elitist concept has no basis except that on the assumption the ordinary Indian is a sub-citizen and freedoms under Part III of the constitution are the privilege of the upper sector of society.”

The court held that the petition must be allowed and handcuffs on the prisoner dropped. And declared that the Punjab Police Manual, in so far as it puts the ordinary Indian beneath the better class breed is untenable and arbitrary and direct that Indian humans shall not be dichotomised and the common run discriminated against regarding handcuffs.

There should be only rational classification among prisoners

Court said that one fails to understand how there can be a quasi-caste system among prisoners in the egalitarian context of Art. 14. It is a sour fact of lire that discriminatory treatment based upon wealth and circumstances dies hard under the Indian Sun.

We hope the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prison Administration will take due note of the survival after legal death of this invidious distinction and put all prisoners on the same footing unless there is a rational classification based upon health, age, academic or occupational needs or like legitimate ground and not irrelevant factors like wealth, political importance, social status and other criteria which are a hang-over of the hierarchical social structure hostile to the constitutional ethos.”

Both Rich and Poor held same Dignity

The court said that, the social status of a person, his education and habit of life associated with superior mode of living seem to be intended to protect his dignity of person. But that dignity is a dignity which belongs to all, rich and poor, of high social status and low, literate and illiterate. It is the basic assumption that all individuals are entitled to enjoy that dignity that determines the rule that ordinarily no restraint should be imposed except in those cases where there is a reasonable fear of the prisoner attempting to escape or attempting violence.

It is abhorrent to envisage a prisoner being handcuffed merely because it is assumed that he does not belong to “a better class”, that he does not possess the basic dignity pertaining to every individual. Then there is need to guard against a misuse of the power from other motives.

It is grossly objectionable that the power given by the law to impose a restraint, either by applying handcuffs or otherwise, should be seen as an opportunity for exposing the accused to public ridicule and humiliation.

Reference

Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration; 1980 AIR 1535


[1] 1980 AIR 1535