A humane alternative

Open prisons are prisons without bars. It is a trust-based system modelled on the principle of self-governance by the prisoners. The latter live with their families in these jails. The inmate is allowed to go out of the prison in the morning, but has to return before the evening roll call. In an open prison, only lodging is provided to the inmate. For everything else, and in order to support families, the prisoners have earn a living.

I was appointed honorary prison commissioner by the Rajasthan state legal services authority to study the open prison system of the state. After visiting 15 open prisons across the state and interviewing 428 convicts living there, I submitted my report to the RSLSA ( http://www.rlsa.gov.in/open_prisons_of_rajasthan_rslsa.html), which was then submitted to the Supreme Court by the authority.

The apex court has ordered all states to study the suggestions made in pages 27-29 of the report and submit their response on the possibility of implementing them. My suggestion is to expand the number of open prisons - a minimum of two open prisons should be built in each district of the country, more than 600 districts resulting in over 1,200 open prisons.

Another suggestion is to keep more prisoners in open prisons. The eligibility criteria for residing in open prisons should not be restricted to only convicts; it should be extended to include undertrials. At present, only convicts are kept in open prisons.

It is believed that if undertrials are sent to open prisons, they will escape. To this it can be argued that previously prisoners were kept strictly restrained with bar fetters and chains till this was declared unconstitutional by the apex court. Such restraints were imposed not because they were necessary to maintain order and ensure security in jails, but owing to vague, unfounded perceptions of jail breaks and fears that the prisoner will pose a threat to society in general. Thereafter, when open prisons were started, it was observed that prisoners did not escape even when there were no security barricades.

The open jail experiment would create an opportunity for formulating a graded and progressive response with regard to the extent of restraint and surveillance necessary to contain prisoners in an inclusive society. In other words, prisoners may at first be kept in open jails, and only if they show tendencies to be violent or attempt escape, they may be confined to the more restrictive regimes of closed jail systems.

The case for undertrials stands on a better footing than that of convicts, as the former are mere suspects who are incarcerated pending investigationrial. The friction of restrictions on undertrials should, therefore, be kept at a bare minimum, so that a fine balance is struck between the fundamental right to liberty and presumption of innocence on the one hand and the requirement of fair and just investigation, protective rights and security of the victim and public interest on the other. This goal can be best achieved in an open jail system, as staying under a minimal restriction regime would have the least impact on the basic human rights of undertrials.

Again, if the argument that convicts are eligible for open prisons depending on their behaviour during their long incarceration period is to be accepted, then it must be acknowledged that a huge population of undertrials also undergo prolonged incarceration on account of lengthy trials. Thus both convicts and undertrials should be considered for staying in open prisons.

In an open prison, the prisoners are responsible for their own liberty. They are expected to discipline themselves and live in relative liberty; if they breach rules, they lose their liberty and are returned to the confines of the closed prison. Administrative order and discipline in open prisons in Rajasthan is maintained by a ' bandi panchayat' or a prisoner-governing body. There is a bandi panchayat in each open prison. Inmates elect the ' panch' from among themselves and every panchayat has a serving period of one year. If a prisoner gets disruptive or breaks the order of an open prison, then the ' panch' may decide to send him back to a closed prison. But it is rather rare that a prisoner will break order and give up on a life of relative liberty.

Open prisons rarely witness prison break, prisoner escape or custodial violence. They lead to a decrease in prison population, which is a huge problem in India given how overcrowded jails are. The rate of recidivism is negligible too. All this is achieved by imposing a minimum burden on the public exchequer. The study shows that Sanganer open prison is 78 times cheaper in comparison to Jaipur central prison (closed prison). Open prisons are less human resource intensive, as there is minimum requirement of prison guards or officials. Jaipur central jail requires one prison staff for every six prisoners; Sanganer requires only one staff person for every 80 prisoners.

The open prison model is the humane alternative to the cruel and archaic prison system of the country. It is cheaper, and free from the failures that plague the Indian prison system. Thus it is in public interest to convert the latter; the open prison should be the norm, while the closed prison remains a rare exception.

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