Incarceration in prisons of the accused is seen to be the victim’s justice that is perceived as a natural corollary for any crime committed. The right to life and liberty are fundamental rights. Bail and not jail, should be the rule, is the established principle in law.
Yet the common man’s perception is in justification of no bail and compulsory jail. This is because people feel that jail is the right place to punish the accused and make him or her suffer for the crime. Retribution is what is yearned for.
Thus, inhuman conditions of a prison are expected and justified, for those accused of crime. Even as justice should seem to be done, the duty of the courts is to supervise and ensure that there is no human or Constitutional violation of rights. This leaves a great responsibility on the Supreme Court and the High Courts, to interfere in prison administration and ensure that the conditions therein are humane and just.
In an on-going Public Interest Litigation taken up suo-motu by the Supreme Court, on unnatural deaths in prisons, it says, “Like most societies, we are not stran
gers to custodial violence and unnatural deaths, but our vibrant democracy permits us to debate and discuss these issues with rational arguments.
However, right sounding noises critical of custodial violence (in any form) cannot achieve any useful purpose, unless persons in authority hear the voices of the victims or the silence of the dead and act on them by taking remedial steps” Ramkumar, accused in the Swathi murder case, died in Puzhal prison allegedly by biting a live wire inside the prison.
Ram Singh committed suicide by hanging in Tihar jail. On the issue of unnatural deaths in prisons, the data available from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), apart from deaths due to natural and unnatural causes there is a classification of “others”.
The Supreme Court itself is aghast about this classification of “others”. Hence it opines that “the dignity of the individual is not a plaything for those in authority”.
In consonance with the United Nations Organisation’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), other guidelines issued by the Nation Human Rights Commissions (NHRC) and taking into account the various high court judgments on the issue of unnatural death of prisoners, the Supreme Court has given many directions.
The salient directions are that the Chief Justice of the High Courts are to register a suo motu public interest petition with a view to identifying the next of kin of the prisoners who have reportedly died an unnatural death, as revealed by the NCRB between 2012 and 2015 and even thereafter, and award compensation. To document every death in prisons – both natural and unnatural.
To conduct training and sensitisation programmes for senior police officials of prisons. Appoint counselors and support persons for counselling prisoners. The services of recognised NGOs can be taken and encouraged.
Extend frequency of visiting hours and use of phones and video conferencing communications between prisoner and family and also also between a prisoner and the lawyer. To constitute a Board of Visitors with non-official members / eminent persons.
The Supreme Court has in effect made the theory of retribution and deterrence archaic and makes way for reformation and rehabilitation as the hallmark of prison administration emphasising “The importance of Article 21 of the Constitution and the right to a life of dignity.
There must be a genuine desire to ensure that the guarantee to a life of dignity is provided to the extent possible even in prisons, otherwise Article 21 of the Constitution will remain a dead letter”.
The writer is Senior Advocate, Madras High Court