Safeguarding the Rights of Prisoners in India: Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, 2016

The author, Samridhi Chugh, is a second year student and a Senior Editor at Awaaz, at the Campus Law Centre.

“Are prisoners persons? Yes, of course. To answer in the negative is to convict the nation and the Constitution of dehumanization and to repudiate the world legal order…” – Supreme Court in  Sunil Batra (II) v. Delhi Administration, 1978.

Writ Petition (Civil) No. 406/2013

The instant landmark judgment in Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons follows the suo motu cognisance taken by the Supreme Court in 2013, zooming in on the failure of the state in its efforts to reform the prison system in India. The Court in its two-judge bench, comprising justices Madan B. Lokur and R.K. Agrawal, set out to examine the implementation of prior judicial efforts on the subject and issued a slew of guidelines for the Centre and the States in furtherance of its vision to correct the bleak conditions prevailing across 1382 of the country’s prisons.

Genesis of the Petition

The petition finds its origins in a letter, dated 13th June, 2013,written by Justice R.C. Lahoti, a former Chief Justice of India to the then Chief Justice of India, set in the background of 35 years long judicial expedition to explore and embrace the territory of prison reformation in the country. This letter, published in Dainik Bhaskar accompanying a graphic story, highlighted multiple issues of concern across 1382 Indian prisons, including but not limited to – “overcrowding of prisons, unnatural death of prisoners, gross inadequacy of staff and available staff being untrained or inadequately trained.” Justice Lahoti also emphasized that state liability to protect the life and safety of the prisoner does not relinquish once in custody and pressed for an increased number of reformative programmes and schemes to safeguard the interests of inmates languishing behind the bars.

Findings of the Court

The letter was registered as a public interest writ petition the same year with notices issued to appropriate authorities. Based on the responses received from several States and Union Territories (UTs), the Court inferred a general consensus deeming the issues raised by Justice Lahoti to be correct with the steps taken to address them appearing to be “facile” and lacking “adequate sincerity in implementation.”

Order of the Court & Submissions by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) dated 23rd April 2015

The Court issued an order in 2015 requiring the Union to furnish the following information, the submissions by the MHA for which are mentioned thereunder:

The utilization of the grant of Rs. 609 crores under the 13th Finance Commission for the improvement of conditions in prisons. The grant to the States in respect of the prisons under the 14th Finance Commission

Based on the affidavit submitted by the MHA, the court expressed its surprise on finding no grant received by over 19 states and UTs under the 13th Finance Commission, and less than 100% utilization in others towards the goal of prison reformation. Further, none of the UTs except Delhi and Puducherry made any demand for grants under the 14th Finance Commission.

Steps taken and being taken by the Central Government as well as by the State Governments for effective implementation of Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (Cr.P.C.)

The MHA pointed to a list of advisories and letters made to all the states and UTs after 2013, wherein it had revealed  the number of undertrial prisoners, as per NCRB, to be 67.6% of the entire prison population, suggestions under which included:

1. Implementation of the provisions of Section 436A of the Cr.P.C. to reduce overcrowding in prisons
2. Constitution of a Review Committee in every district chaired by the District Judge with the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police as Members to meet every three months and review the cases of undertrial prisoners
3. Survey of all cases by the Jail Superintendent where undertrial prisoners had completed more than one fourth of the maximum sentence and submission of the report to the District Legal Services Committee and the Review Committee
4. Awareness drives inside the prisons and provision of legal aid and services for undertrial prisoners
5. Use of plea bargaining measures
6. Establishment of fast-track courts, use of Lok Adalats as well as video conferencing for the production of the accused.

The MHA also pointed to another of its letters wherein it had expressed its concerns on overcrowding, by 129%, stating this to be “unacceptable in light of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Offenders to which India is the signatory.” It also submitted that some states had taken measures including release under Probation of Offenders Act, 1958, provision of legal aid and implementation of guidelines issued by the Bombay High Court.

The number of persons in custody, having committed compoundable offences and are languishing in custody due to their inability to provide adequate security/surety for their release on bail

The affidavit submitted by the MHA revealed that no effective steps had been taken on this issue particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Kerala, Mizoram, Nagaland, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Telangana, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh.

Steps taken for the effective implementation of the Repatriation of Prisoners Act, 2003

The MHA submitted that the Repatriation of Prisoners Act of 2003 had been implemented in some countries with bilateral agreements signed with 25 nations for transfer of sentenced individuals, but only 18 agreements were then operational on both sides.

Directions of Court dated 24th April, 2015

The Court issued the following directions based on the above submissions made by the MHA through its affidavit:

1. The MHA should study and improve Tihar Jail’s Prisoners Management System for deployment in other jails across the country, if necessary.
2. The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) should appoint a senior judicial officer as a nodal officer to assist with the issues in this case.
3. The Under Trial Review Committee must be established in every district within one month, and the review of cases of all under trial prisoners entitled to the benefit of Section 436A of the Code should be conducted.
4. The Under Trial Review Committee should consider the cases of all under trial prisoners, after half the sentence of the lesser offence is completed by them.
5. The Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) must undertake a review of the Model Prison Manual within three months.
6. State Legal Services Authorities must take up cases of prisoners who are unable to furnish bail and are still in custody for that reason.
7. The State Legal Services Authorities must also take up compoundable offences so that immediate steps can be taken, and efforts should be made to expedite the disposal of those cases or have the persons in custody released therefrom.

NALSA’s Compliance Report

In pursuance of the above directions, the NALSA filed a compliance report on 4th August, 2015, affirming that steps had been taken to establish Under Trial Review Committees in every district, with request made to the State Legal Services Authorities to handle the cases of incarcerated individuals who were unable to provide bail bonds and to file appropriate applications on their behalf. It highlighted the progress made on the Prisons Management System and informed the appointment of a project management consultant to prepare a detailed project report for the e-Prisons project. It also submitted that a draft of the revised Model Prison Manual had already been circulated for comments and finalization, adding that efforts were being made to expedite the disposal of cases of those undertrials involved in compoundable offences.

Order of the Court dated 7th August, 2015

On the basis of the compliance report submitted by the NALSA, the Court suggested the following:

1. Under Trial Review Committee to include Secretary of District Legal Services Committee as member
2. Composition of Committee for Model Prison Manual to be multi-disciplinary and involve members from civil society and NGOs as well as other experts; Model Prison Manual to provide a crèche for children of prisoners
3. Establish under trial review committees across all districts in India with an extensive review of the prison management systems.
4. Steps to be taken for release of undertrial prisoners in accordance with law, particularly those who had been granted bail but were unable to furnish bail bond due to poverty.

The Additional Solicitor General informed the Court on the direction of the MHA to all States and UTs to adhere to the above mentioned guidelines, ensuring that the revised Model Prison Manual was ready by December 2015. This was followed by the issuance of another compliance report by the NALSA confirming the establishment of Under Trial Review Committees across all districts of the country with the Secretary of District Legal Services Committee as member.

Court’s Observations in January 2016

The Court observed on 29th January, 2016 that “considerable progress had been made in as much as the Model Prison Manual had been finalized and perhaps circulated to all the States and Union Territories; Under Trial Review Committees had been set up in every district but unfortunately many of such Committees were not meeting on a regular basis every quarter; the application software for prison management had more or less been identified but a final decision was required to be taken in this regard; steps were required to be taken for the release of undertrial prisoners particularly in the State of Uttar Pradesh and the State of Maharashtra and wherever necessary, the number of panel lawyers associated with the State Legal Services Authority/District Legal Services Committee were required to be increased to meet the requirement of early release of undertrial prisoners and prisoners who remain in custody due to their poverty and inability to furnish bail bonds. In addition, it was pointed out that steps should be taken to ensure that wherever persons are in custody under offences that are compoundable, steps should be taken to compound the offences so that overcrowding in jails is reduced.”

However, the NCRB Prison Statistics, 2014, revealed that despite the above progress, no perceptible change could be witnessed in terms of prison overcrowding. In fact, the issue of overcrowding in prisons had only aggravated over time. In light of these statistics, the Court went on to reiterate India’s commitments towards the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stressing the need to ensure dignity for prisoners as with other human beings.

Judgment (5th February, 2016)

Based on the above findings, the Supreme Court bench in its final judgment issued a range of directions for the executive arm, as follows:

The Under Trial Review Committee in every district must meet every quarter, starting on or before March 31, 2016.
The Secretary of the District Legal Services Committee must attend each meeting and take appropriate steps for the release of undertrial prisoners and convicts who have served their sentence.
The Committee should ensure effective implementation of Section 436 and Section 436A of the Cr.P.C. for early release of undertrial prisoners and those who cannot furnish bail due to poverty.
The Committee should also ensure effective implementation of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958, particularly for first-time offenders.
Adequate numbers of competent lawyers should be empanelled to assist undertrial prisoners and convicts, particularly the poor and indigent.
The Secretary of the District Legal Services Committee should explore the possibility of compounding offences instead of requiring a trial.
The living conditions of prisoners should be commensurate with human dignity, including health, hygiene, food, clothing, and rehabilitation.
The Management Information System should be implemented in all Central and District Jails and jails for women for better management of prisons and prisoners.
The Ministry of Home Affairs should conduct an annual review of the Model Prison Manual 2016 and make changes as necessary.
The Under Trial Review Committee should also look into the issues raised in the Model Prison Manual 2016, including regular jail visits.
The MHA Secretary with the support of Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, should look into preparing a manual similar to the Model Prison Manual in respect of juveniles who are in custody either in Observation Homes or Special Homes or Places of Safety in terms of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.

The judgment is considered landmark for its far-reaching impact on the manifestation of prison reform directives through judicio-executive action and for prompting steps in the direction of prison decongestion, expeditious disposal of undertrials as well as the introduction of the New Model Prison Manual of 2016. The latter, revised more than a decade after the adoption of the original Manual in 2003, encompasses a holistic range of aspects pertaining to prison reformation within its broad matrix of XXXII chapters.

The petition also set in motion a series of progressive judgments on prisoners’ rights and rehabilitation under the same title, the latest dating back to December 2018 wherein the Court entitled death row inmates to the right to be consulted by mental health professionals.

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