The Department of Prisons and Correctional Services has put together a panel that will examine the issue of conjugal visitation rights for prisoners in the state. The committee will conduct a study by visiting prisons and drawing perspectives from key stakeholders including the guards, jail staffers and the inmates.
The information obtained will help the Madras High Court arrive at a consensus on this matter.The issue of conjugal visits for prisoners has been highlighted time and again.
A conjugal visit is a scheduled meeting where inmates are allowed to spend time with their spouses. Three years ago in Tirunelveli, an inmate of the central prison was granted a two-week leave as part of a conjugal visit request.
The plea was made by the prisoner serving a life sentence, who was keen on starting a family. The Madras High Court had approved the request citing examples of nations where conjugal visits are a norm.
The Court also drew attention to a resolution passed by the Centre that labelled such visits as a right, and not a privilege.By all means, such visits constitute fundamental human rights as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees people a life of dignity and liberty.
The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court had recently remarked that such visits would allow prisoners to bond with their families and reduce the instances of recidivism.
TN’s Department of Prisons is yet to clarify whether such visits will be made in-prison by a spouse, or if visits will be granted as part of parole.But how feasible is the idea of arranging for conjugal visits in the context of Indian prisons? The standard protocol allows families to meet inmates in prisons, but for durations that do not exceed half an hour.
The meetings are also held in noisy, packed rooms in the presence of other inmates and their families, which leave little room for private conversations, let alone physical intimacy. Such visits are also monitored by prison staffers, which take away the notion of any privacy. Also, there is no conjugal visitation programme offered in any closed prison in India.
Two years ago, the Director-General (Prisons) informed the Delhi High Court that conjugal visits in jails would be impractical due to the nature of confinement and that parole and furlough were the options offered to prisoners to maintain family ties. Existing rules do not provide for in-prison conjugal visits, and there is limited infrastructure within the prisons itself, the Court was told.
On the bright side, a few states have opted for social experiments like open-air prisons, that allow for freedom of movement for convicts. Successful examples in Tamil Nadu include its three open-air prisons in Coimbatore, Salem and Sivaganga that accommodate 260 prisoners. Here, there is no cap on the number of family visits on weekdays for prisoners who do not fall in the high-risk category. The government has mooted a fourth open-air prison in Thanjavur, which is yet to be flagged off. As per the Prison Statistics of India Report, 2018, only 17 states have open jails.
Rajasthan boasts of 31 out of a total of 77 open prisons in India. Only Maharashtra and Kerala have made provisions to house women prisoners in open-air prisons. Rajasthan’s Sanganer Open Camp is a unique set-up where prisoners are permitted to live with their families.
The houses here are built by the convicts and they must pay for their water and electricity. The discourse around reformation and prisoner rights will pick up steam in the days to come. Incarceration might be defined by walls, but our sense of empathy and dignity towards those serving time is not bound by those walls. In the quest for swift delivery of justice, we must not forget what the end goal is – rehabilitation