Justice behind bars: As Supreme Court forms panel on prison reforms, overcrowding, rehab remain biggest challenges

The Supreme Court has recently ordered for the formation of a three-member committee on jail reform which will be headed by a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Amitava Roy. The committee will make recommendations for the measures to be taken for jail reforms across the country, including the issues of women prisoners as well as overcrowding of prisons. The committee will be assisted by government officials and will have to report to the Supreme Court at regular intervals about the developments made by them.

Despite much ink having been split on the topic of prisoners’ rights, imprisonment in most countries across the globe faces many challenges. Overcrowding and usage of outdated facilities are the most severe ones. Not only do they have a deplorable effect on the mental and physical health of the inmates but they also act as an impediment to the vocational training and education that the inmates have a right to undergo. The fallout of this is that after their release, they find it difficult to re-adjust to the means and methods of the society. Therefore, poor conditions of prisons do not just affect the inmates; they also defeat the whole purpose of reformation, as the prisoners are left worse off than the time when they came to the prison.

Internationally, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures, 1990, or simply, the Tokyo Rules, have been enacted to find long-term alternatives to imprisonment of offenders. Further, they implore administrations to redesign the penal sanctions to the needs of each and every individual offender in a structure which would be proportionate to the crime s/he committed.

The administration of prisons throughout the world has undergone a sea change. From the age-old retributive theory of administration of justice, the focus has now shifted to reforming the convicts so that they can integrate into society after their release. This is to ensure that the human rights of the prisoners are always guaranteed to them. International law also provides for the same as it strongly advocates the principle of rehabilitation. Rule 4 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, more commonly known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, provides that, “The purposes of a sentence of imprisonment or similar measures deprivative of a person’s liberty are primarily to protect society against crime and to reduce recidivism. Those purposes can be achieved only if the period of imprisonment is used to ensure, so far as possible, the reintegration of such persons into society upon release so that they can lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life.”

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Thus, there exists a duty on the prison management to provide education and vocational training to the inmates. Vocational training is useful as it not only provides for employment opportunities to the offenders, but also helps in social integration. However, the true rehabilitation of a person takes more than these components. Healthcare, basic needs, decent living conditions, amicable relationship between the convicts and the prison staff, post release support, post-release supervision are necessary for the proper rehabilitation of convicts to ensure their basic human rights. Education and vocational training are essential as across the world, most crimes are committed due to poverty. The process wherein the life of a prisoner inside the prison is made similar to his/her life outside, such that after the prison sentence, s/he is able to lead a normal life, is referred to as ‘normalisation.’ The Nelson Mandela Rules refer to this as “normal occupational life”. These practices of rehabilitation help in developing a positive environment in the prison facilities. This brings in constructive activities, due to which less menace is caused in the prison premises. It has been proposed that incentives should be offered for taking part in such activities.

Lastly, for the guaranteeing of the rights of prison inmates, it is important to provide them with a forum to register complaints. However, this right is generally neglected. Complaints should be dealt with promptly and upon request, in a confidential manner. In cases where prisoners themselves cannot file complaints, their families have to take charge of the same.

This can be ensured when prisoners are provided with the necessary details about filing a complaint and the means and methods of inspection as soon as they enter the prison. The details should be provided in a manner and language that is easily understandable to the prisoner. This information should be provided orally. Such a mechanism is provided in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Article 13 and Principle 33 of the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment. Rule 35 of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states the manner in which inmates should be given information about regulations that govern the prison.

All in all, there are many areas in which reforms should be made. According to statistics, there are many inmates who languish in jails without being provided basic human facilities. Despite the periodic interference by the Supreme Court to provide inmates with various rights, including the right to legal aid, right to speedy trial, right to wages, etc. there still exists a lot of scope for reform. Now, with the formation of the committee, it can be safe to assume that the prison system in India will move towards the promotion of a better system of administration, which will thus help improve the conditions of the prisoners.

Raghav Pandey is an Assistant Professor of Law at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai and Neelabh Bist is a Fourth Year student of Law at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai.


Updated Date: Sep 27, 2018 16:30 PM

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