It was the overcrowding of prisons all over West Bengal as a result of the recent lawyers’ strike that finally led to a compromise between the lawyers and the state government. There can be no better pointer to the terrible condition of jails in the state. But jails elsewhere in the country are no better. Jail manuals are antiquated and the attitude of jail authorities towards crime and criminals often unpardonably dehumanizing. No wonder prison riots, jailbreaks and frequent escape by prisoners are regular occurrences.
In this connection, the Centre’s recent approval of a Rs 1,800 crore action plan for prison reforms is a step in the right direction. The plan seeks to build more prisons and improve the health conditions in the 1,133 jails aro- und the country, besides renovating old jails, building living quarters for jail staff and improving sanitation facilities for women prisoners and their children.
Jails are expected to serve four major objectives: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation. Crimes that disrupt society have to be punished and, hence, criminals must lose a part of their freedom. Law-breakers must be segregated so they can no longer harm people. Future crimes have to be prevented by making the delinquent understand that the infringement of law is not permissible in civilized society. And when the prison term ends, the prisoner should be able to return to the world, a law-abiding citizen.
But the ground realities are very different.Conditions in most jails are often so bad that casual wrong-doers too become hardened criminals during their stay there. Funds meant for jail inmates are often misappropriated. Medical facilities are inadequate and there are few female doctors. Many jails even lack potable water.
Modern management of prisons has been the subject of in-depth studies by four committees since 1919-20; the Supreme Court has delivered four landmark judgments in 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1990, on the issue. But prison authorities are even now guided by the Prisons Act, 1894, enacted by a colonial regime that saw jails as places to break the back of the nationalists. No wonder, our prisons continue to follow archaic traditions like allowing “convict officers”, mostly hardened criminals, to manage their fellow inmates. There is no all-India cadre of officers to manage prisons.
The Union government should evolve a standard jail manual applicable throughout the country, with the help of human rights activists, judges, lawyers and eminent criminologists.
The root cause of all problems in our jails is overcrowding. In some cases, jails are filled to over 400 per cent of their capacity. In Bihar, jails have a cumulative capacity of about 20,500 inmates, but 36,000 prisoners are lodged in them. Police apathy and overcrowding recently led to the death of five undertrials in a Murshidabad lock up. It also led to a revolt in Bihar’s Chhapra jail where 1,500 prisoners were lodged against a capacity of 400 inmates.
A national human rights commission report says that undertrials comprise 70 per cent of all jail inmates. Most of them are charged with minor offences but cannot afford bail. The very rationale of punishment is defeated when detention without trial stretches well beyond what is prescribed by law for such crimes.
In order to lessen prison population, policy-makers may consider adopting the “reductionist” methods which have helped countries like Japan, England, the United States of America and Holland to reduce the prison population and improve infrastructure.
A multi-pronged strategy is needed. The judiciary must be asked to exercise restraint when dealing with minor offences. Undertrials must be let out on parole. The introduction of heavy fines and confiscation of property may also be considered as viable options to incarceration as was done in Holland, England and Japan in the late Seventies. To start with, these measures may be tried out on white-collar criminals.