PLIGHT OF PRISONERS IN INDIAN JAILS
Author: Parth Sharma, V year of B.A.LL.B from S.S.Jain Subodh Law College, Jaipur
As of 2022, India’s population is estimated to be around 139.34 crores. Crime is an inevitable aspect of human life, and in India, the industrial revolution is advancing at an exponential rate, with prejudices polluting the human conscience, the crime rate is surging. Prison plays an important role in society. Even though they are called public institutions, whatever happens inside those huge walls with barbed wires, the general public knows so little of it. Prisons were meant to prevent the convicts from violating the rights of the public, but over the years prisons have become the epicentre of inhumane conditions for prisoners, and violation of basic human rights is standard practice. DrKafeel Khan was lodged in prison because he was critical of the BJP government and his dissent was not welcomed. In a letter, he described the vile state the prisoners were living in. He revealed that the prison provided only a single toilet for 100 to 120 inmates. A prison with the capacity to accommodate around 500 inmates had more than 1500 prisoners. There were only 4 to 6 toilets for all of them. The constant power cuts made the heat unbearable. It would be right to say that the present condition of the prisons embodies hell. In 2018, National Crime Records Bureau came out with a report and showed that around 64% of the prisoners are still under trial. Even the Supreme Court has lamentedthat the long-suffering of the people waiting for their trials is a shame on the judicial system. In some cases, the inmates suffer because they don't have the resources to challenge their grievous terms. The poor application of the existing norms given by the prison manuals is the result of societal disdain and lack of sympathy for the prisoners.
The Battle of a Trial
Mohammed Ali Bhat, a Kashmiri, working in Kathmandu as a shawl trader was arrested by Delhi police in 1996, and was made an accused in the Lajpat Nagar bomb blast case. He then was made an accused in the Samlethi blast case in Rajasthan. He was just 25. On July 22, 2019, the Rajasthan High Court acquitted Mohammed of his charges. Bhat has lost 23 years of his life by the time he was given the justice he deserved. In another case, Mohammad Maqbool Shah, an accused in the Lajpat Nagar blast case, was acquitted by a Delhi lower court in 2010. At the age of 29, and after spending more than a decade in the prison, Maqbool was given the justice he deserved. Even though his acquittal made him free, the death of his father and sister made him sorrowful. Just like Bhat, Maqbool also became a victim of the languorous Indian Judicial System.
Much has changed in India in the past years apart from the agony of the under-trial prisoners. And the trend seems to get only worse as their number continues to surge drastically. According to a report given by National Crime Records Bureau, 8 out of 10 people are under trial in Indian Prisons. In 1978, 54% of the prisoners were under trial. The present figure shows the graveness of the situation as it now stands at 68%. Most of these under trials come from poor households and are from marginalized communities, the majority of them are still young and illiterate. According to a report from the National Crime Record Bureau which came out in 2017, 3.08 lakh prisoners were under trial and were not convicted in any court of law. It has become a common trend in India for the rich and powerful to obtain bail from the courts without any hassle, whereas the poor and marginalized are left to rot in jails just because they lack the wherewithal to fight against their charges. The heavy workload of the judiciary and the incompetency of the free legal aid services have contributed to shaping the identity of an average under-trial prisoner as socioeconomically backward, illiterate and poor. Article 39A of the Indian constitution provides for free legal aid to those who cannot afford a lawyer, and article 14 and 22(1) ensures a legal system that promotes equal opportunity to all. It is easier said than done. According to a report by India spend, even though around 80% of the population opt for free legal aid, since 1995, only 15 million people have been able to avail of the services under the Legal Service Authorities Act, of 1987.
The psychological and physical hardships that under trial prisoners go through create a paradox as the Indian judicial system promotes the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Undertrial prisoners are confined for a long period even though the constitution of India promotes the right to a fair and speedy trial.
The outbreak of the covid 19 has shed alight on the plight of prisoners in Indian jails. As Supreme Court moved to decongest jails, prisoners were released as the matter became concerned with the right to life of both the prisoner and the jail staff. But the issue was not novel but rather ignored until the pandemic occurred. A robust institution is required that not only protects the right to a speedy trial of prisoners but also ensures that their right to health is also upheld. The death of father Stan Swamy comes as a shock, and becomes yet another case which proves that the rights of prisoners should not be ignored; commitment to human dignity should be the motivating factor behind these rights. Improving the conditions of the prisoners is not meant to make their life easy and smooth, it is meant to at least treat them as humans. The implementation of the rules is required and the system should be made transparent. Watchdogs should be watched. And to make up for the flaws of the system, compensation should be provided to the people who are subjected to mental and physical agony. Their rights should not be ignored because they are prisoners but protected because they too are humans.