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Supreme Courts Directive For The Welfare Of Prisoners

The deplorable condition of Indian Prisons has often attracted the attention of the international community for the inhumane condition it provides to its inmates.  The 2020 Prisoner Statistics India (PSI) report by National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) highlights the problem of overcrowded and understaffed jails in India.

 According to this report, Indian jails hold 114% of their inbuilt capacity. As per the report, two-thirds of the prisoners are undertrials, i.e people who are detained during an inquiry, investigation but are not charged with any offense. This ratio is disproportionately high as compared to the U.K with 11% undertrial UK, 20% in the US, and 29% in France.

 It is popularly held that overcrowding in prisons is a consequence of the poor criminal justice system and not of rising crime rates. Overcrowding compromises the ability of the prison to meet the basic needs of the inmates, like healthcare, hygiene, food standards. Besides these, the prisoners are also deprived of additional facilities like vocational training, educational training, rehabilitation program, etc.

The detention of undertrials and those accused of minor offenses are the major factor behind the overcrowding of jail. Overcrowding causes the prisoners to have a lack of privacy and this might be the driving cause behind the increased rate of harm,self-harm, and excavation of mental health issues among prisoners.  
Indian prisons face a severe shortage of manpower as 33% of the job requirement remain vacant in comparison to the 114% occupancy rate. A lack of officials to oversee the activities of the prisoners is the prime cause for rampant criminal activities within the jail. This implies that the existing staff of prisons are overburdened with work. This also implies compromise in the standard of work by prison staff and hence unsatisfactory response to the need of prisoners. With an inadequate workforce, it is impossible to think of reform in jails.

The hygiene standards of prisons do not adhere to those set by international organizations like Red Cross, BPRD's Prison Manual, etc. Unhygienic health conditions deprive a prisoner of his fundamental right to life with human dignity. They are also detrimental to the health and well-being of the prisoners.  Unhygienic living conditions is one of the leading cause of death for jail inmates. 

The All India Prison Reforms Committee, also known as the Mulla Committee, worked on the aspect of prison reforms between 1980-1983. The committee had submitted a report, detailing how the existing setup of jails could be improved. They had covered all the aspects -medical, administrative, hygiene, etc.

In 2015, the MHA submitted another report, which detailed the implementation of the aforementioned report.

Unfortunately, the implementation of the recommendation suggested by various committees has been scarce and inadequate. 

Prisoners' rights are protected under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Article 21 states  No person shall be deprived of his right to life and personal liberty except according to the due procedure established by law. The Supreme Court has held that prisoners have the right against torture as per articles 19 and 14 of the constitution. The judgment passed in D.K Basu vs State of West Bengal is a noteworthy decision taken by the supreme court against police atrocities that result in custodian death of the inmates.

In Re: Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, the Supreme Court took up suo moto cognize based on a letter written by former Chief Justice of India, Justice Lodhia. Justice Lodhia pointed out four primary problems of jails in India- overcrowding, lack of staff, custodial deaths, and lack of training of prison personnel. The Supreme Court directed the High Courts to investigate the cause of unnatural deaths and document the cause of each death-whether natural or unnatural. It also directed the State Governments to appoint counselors and appoint a board of visitors to ensure the availability of adequate medical aid. In addition to this, the Supreme Court directed the authorities to assist in legal aid, especially to the undertrials.

Raghubir Singh vs. the State of Bihar and Kishore Singh vs. the State of Rajasthan are some other examples that can be cited to show the intolerance of the judiciary towards police torture and concern for the welfare of the prisoners. 

Measures taken by the Judiciary to protect the prisoners from the spread of  COVID-19. 

COVID-19 is a virus that is highly contagious by nature and transmits rapidly from one person to another when kept in close proximity. With jails filled with inmates beyond their intake capacity, maintaining social distancing among prisoners was a distant dream for jail authorities.  The safeguard of inmates of the jail from the coronavirus disease was a herculean task. Here, it is important to understand that crowded jails can emerge as the epicenter of the virus in a minimal time span. Like any other virus, coronavirus profiltrate in crowded space, 

The Supreme Court of India fully appreciated the gravity of the situation. It acknowledged the bitter truth of Indian Jails. i.e., overcrowding and issued important directives for the state government to implement while handling jails to prevent the outbreak of the epidemic. Steps had to be taken on an urgent basis to prevent the outbreak of the coronavirus. 

Some of the steps that were suggested to safeguard the inmates of jail from coronavirus were:
Isolation of prisoners tested positive for the COVID-19 virus
The court suggested that immediate measures should be taken to isolate the prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 for quarantine. Required medication should also be made available to such prisoners. The Supreme Court cited the example of Kerala where the prisoner displaying signs of fever, cough, and cold were moved to isolation cells set up across the state. All new inmates that were brought to the jail also had to be isolated for six days before they could be allowed to enter regular prison cells.

In Tihar Jail, Delhi, all 17500 inmates were tested for COVID-19 and it was found that none of them had tested positive. The authorities at the jail had decided to put the new inmates in different wards for three days and screen them.

Constitution of High-Powered Committee
The Supreme Court directed the states to constitute a High-powered committee to oversee the management of the prisons in COVID-19 times. The High-Powered Committee was to consist of:
  1.  Chairman of the State
    Legal Services Committee,
  2. the Principal Secretary
    (Home/Prison) by whatever designation is known as:
    1. Director
      General of Prison(s).
This committee would also meet with the Undertrial Review Committee to contemplate on the release of undertrial prisoners and other prisoners based on the nature of the offense committed for an interim period.

Release of prisoners on interim bail/ furlough/ parole
To avoid congestion within the cell prisons, it was decided that prisoners and undertrials should be released for an interim period as decided by the High-powered committee. This decision had to be based on several factors like the number of years sentenced to punishment, the severity of the offense, etc. Prisoners or undertrials could either be released or given interim bail with or without a fine. 

Interaction with visitors through telephone
It was of imminent risk to allow visitors inside the jail premises or allow them near the inmates as they could be a potential carrier of the virus. To avoid the transmission of the virus from visitors of the inmates, it was suggested that a telephonic booth be used for communication with the inmates. This measure would keep both inmates and visitors safe from the virus. 

Other Measures
These measures generally include the creation of isolation wards, quarantine of new prisoners including prisoners of foreign nationality for a specific period, preliminary examination of prisoners for COVID-19, ensuring availability of medical assistance, entry points scanning of staff and other service providers, sanitation, and cleanliness exercise of prison campus and wards, supply of masks, barring or limiting of the personal visit of visitors to prisoners, suspension of cultural and other group activities, awareness and training about the stoppage of transmission of COVID-19 and court hearings through video conferencing among others. Many states have also initiated the process of installing digital thermometers for examination of the prisoners, staff, and visitors. Some of the States also took similar measures for Remand Homes as well.

According to various reports, 18157 inmates had tested positive last year and 17 of them died due to coronavirus. During the second wave of the virus this year, 2803 inmates were infected while 9 inmates and a prison staff succumbed to the virus. The infection rate among the jail is high despite the measures recommended by the judiciary because the implementation of the recommendation was inadequate.

For instance, although the Supreme Court recommended the release of prisoners and undertrials on bail from the prison to decongest the prisons, 27% of prisons across 19 states continued to remain overcrowded. This delay was due to procedural hurdles that were caused by the limited functioning of the court during the pandemic. Poor sanitation and lack of health care facilities negated the purpose of an isolation ward for new inmates as a proper environment to restrict the spread of coronavirus were not provided.

The most worrisome of all problems is the fact that most prisoners are yet to be fully vaccinated despite being one of the most vulnerable suspects of coronavirus
The primary problems that arose while implementing the measures were the lack of infrastructure, poor sanitation, and inadequate medical care facility. These problems in the prison system have been longstanding and hence temporary measures to prevent the spread of the virus were defeated by these problems.

Prisoners assume ward of the state status as they are entirely dependent on the state for their sustenance and well-being. As per Schedule VII, List II, Entry 4 of the constitution, the state had the responsibility to look after the well-being of the prison inmates. Inadequate care is taken for the prisoners concerning health, sanitation, and food is a sheer failure of the state's duty to take care of the prisoners and a violation of human rights of the prisoners.

Although the Supreme Court's timely intervention in issuing directives is commendable, yet the court failed to look into the deep-rooted problems of inadequate infrastructure. To ensure that the prison inmates can lead a dignified life, as ensured to them under article 21, it is important to make permanent reforms in the prisons.

Adequate infrastructure, proper sanitation, and medical facilities ought to be made. Proper personnel must be appointed and trained in order to take care of the prison management. Only after permanent reforms are made in the existing prison system to truly transform Prisons to correctional homes.

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