Sabrina Lall's letter can't pardon Manu Sharma, only the law can: Understanding social impact of correctional prison reform

The right to pardon rests with the State alone. Sabrina Lall's letter stating that she won't object to the release of her sister Jessica's killer Manu Sharma from Tihar Jail has come six months after the man was moved to a semi-open jail.

The night of 30 April, 1999, is etched in the memory of Delhi, which until the verdict was delivered was a city where everybody was somebody and someplace numbingly high above constitutional binds. Manu Sharma, son of former Congress leader Venod Sharma, was convicted by the Delhi High Court in 2006 after 32 witnesses turned hostile and the trial court acquitted him.

The case awakened collective conscience about the immunity enjoyed by the powerful elite and the vulnerability of the masses at their hands, and was immortalised by the 2011 film No One Killed Jessica.

Speaking to Firstpost about Sabrina's letter to Tihar's Welfare Officer regarding Manu Sharma's release, Raj Kumar, additional inspector general, Tihar, said that jails don't concern themselves with letters because there are 15,000 prisoners and letters written for each of them will be as relevant or as irrelevant to the jail authorities. Such is the evenness the law lays down.

The President of India and governors of states have been given the power to "grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence", under articles 72 and 161. In case of absolute pardon, the accused is released permanently, while in case of conditional pardon, the offender is let off subject to certain conditions, the breach of which will lead to revival of the sentence.

 Sabrina Lalls letter cant pardon Manu Sharma, only the law can: Understanding social impact of correctional prison reform

File image of Tihar Jail, where Manu Sharma is lodged. Reuters

Civil society's intervention built pressure on the government and the judiciary to fast-track the case and send Sharma to jail. Now serving life-term imprisonment, Sharma's journey from guilt to reconciliation to reform is being mapped and monitored by the judicial authorities. At this point in time, the case can best be understood in the backdrop of prison reform and the psychology of pardons.

Speaking to Firstpost, former IPS officer Kiran Bedi said that it is the law and not individuals which has to decide, since such decisions have a social impact. "We must touch the sensitivities of victims. Everyone has their own sentiments. But justice is the responsibility of legal processes and not victims," explained Bedi, who has worked extensively on prison reform at Tihar.

Ajay Verma, an advocate and social worker, said that the court's judgment on 'Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons' in response to the Writ Petition (Civil) No. 406 of 2013 had stated that the suggestion given by the learned amicus of encouraging the establishment of open jails or open prisons is certainly worth considering. The judgment laid down that the "counseling should be encouraged and the state governments should engage the services of psychologists or social counselors who could visit the prisons on a daily basis to counsel prisoners, particularly first-time offenders".

It added that "there should be an independent mechanism for entertaining the grievances of inmates without getting the inmates into trouble with the prison staff or other inmates", and that over-crowding in jails should be reduced and that might help in reducing the possibility of suicides by the prisoners.

Verma, the convener of the National Forum for Prison Reforms, a group of civil societies working on prison reform, said that the capacity of Tihar is roughly 7,500 but 15,000 inmates live here. "This matter is beyond Sabrina Lall. There is a sentence review board that considers whether a lifer will be sent to a semi-open jail before his or her release, and this board comprises prison officers, a judge, secretary from the home department and probation officers who present their report," Verma said.

He added that Santosh Kumar Singh, the son of a former IPS officer who was accused of the rape and murder of 25-year-old law student Priyadarshini Matoo, also went to a semi-open jail.

Advocate Prem Prakash, who works closely with inmates at Tihar, says the principle of criminal and prison reform is that it is not the criminal but the criminal mentality that must be slayed. He believes that high profile cases like Manu Sharma's attract people towards understanding jails but several complications of normal cases are unaddressed. For instance, the limelight is on the acceptance and rejection of bail pleas in high-profile cases like Mattoo's and Lall's, but bails are an anti-poor concept in India.

As defined in Law Lexicon by P Ramantha Aiyar (2017), "The monetary value of the security, known also as the bail, or, more accurately, the bail bond, is set by the court having jurisdiction over the prisoner. The security may be cash, the papers giving title to property, or the bond of private persons of means or of a professional bondsman or bonding company. Failure of the person released on bail to surrender himself at the appointed time results in forfeiture of the security."

Prakash fights for the rights of those unable to arrange documents and funds for bail. "I have worked closely on two lifers accused of murder and rape and both have come out of the jail reformed. Some people sink into depression and others learn meditation, and read and write. Jail authorities keep a close watch on prolonged behavior and are able to notice the change in behavior. It is hard for inmates to fool the authorities," Prakash said, adding that the concept of semi-open jail, a four-storeyed building on the Tihar jail campus, far away from the other cells, is a good one.

Rajini Singh, who works with women inmates at Tihar, told Firstpost that Manu Sharma lived in Jail No.2 and ran an NGO that provided financial support to the families of those in jail, particularly the education of their children. "Not just Manu Sharma, but also SS Rathee, who was convicted of killing two innocent civilians in a fake encounter at Connaught Place in 1997, who participated in the International Yoga Day celebrations. Sharma has worked on architecture of Jail No.2 and the others have completed a yoga training course and in fact used to run a training programme on behalf of Panchwati Yoga Ashram, which runs training courses inside Tihar," she said.

Rajini added that nearly 30 percent of the inmates are hardcore criminals and reform means very little to them. However, she said, it's not as much the intensity of the crime but the nature of exposure in the jail that determines the state of mind in which the inmate walks out.

In case of the other 70 percent, through counselling, yoga, chanting and constructive activities that slowly erase memories of shame and wipe out ideas of revenge, and along with them expectation of pardon. Rajini, along with Swami Ashutosh of Panchwati Yoga Ashram, felt that undertrials are a bigger problem, because unlike long-term inmates who are made to internalise their mistakes and its consequences over a longer period of time, undertrials live in the uncertainty of guilt and misfortune of being wrongly convicted for up to seven or eight years.

"The ward for 18-21 year olds is where the psychology is most complicated, because approximately, 700 of them are accused of crimes like petty theft, brawls and chain snatching (Article 376 & Article 302 being the most common)," he said.

He added that the flame of seeking revenge is burning and the realisation that society won't accept them has kicked in, so to them it seems lucrative to turn to crime full-time. Unlike high-profile convicts, these inmates are school drop-outs. In Tihar's Mandoli Jail No.14, which has been adopted by the Yoga Ashram, out of 600 inmates, less than 15 are graduates, while nearly 50 dropped out of primary school and others didn't go to school.

Just like in crime, circumstances are imperative to reform too. Not every high-profile inmate is given a separate cell. Sometimes, s/he is made to live with habituated and drugged criminals and the environment has an impact in their passage toward reform and pardon. Vartika Nanda, a prison reforms activist who founded the Tinka Tinka Project — a unique series to bring change in the lives of the jail inmates — is working on a book on Manu Sharma and co-wrote the book Tinka Tinka Dasna (Dasna Jail, Ghaziabad) with Nupur Talwar, mother of slain teenager Aarushi Talwar. "In most cases, high-profile victims say they will come back and work for the jail, but they generally don't look back. Ordinary persons can change their addresses, mobile numbers, cities and even their names, but famous inmates have to live with their identity," Nanda said.

Nanda said that some people come out polished and reformed and that depends on the circumstances they were exposed to inside the jail. "Jail authorities are panicking about managing a famous inmate, so the interaction with common inmates is generally lesser. Solitary confinement has its own problems as the entire journey would be traumatic if the person is left to themselves," she said.

Furthermore, this causes a problem of overburdening inside jails; in India, 149 jails are overcrowded. Nanda pointed out that out of the total 63 open jails, 59 are from men and only four are from women — Yerawada in Maharashtra, Sanganer and Durgapur in Rajasthan, and one in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

Does pardon feel hard-earned, or has the inmate recovered from guilt by the time it comes? To find out, Firstpost spoke to two former inmates of Tihar. Randhir Mishra said that in Jail No.2, where Manu Sharma is lodged, there is a bakery and a furniture factory and during the Kathmandu earthquake, 1,000 biscuits manufactured by TJ's were distributed there. Bakery products, handloom and textile, apparel, furniture, mustard oil, recycled hand-made paper products, paintings, designer candles and lamps, and jute bags are manufactured in Tihar jail factories.

Mishra shared the story of how lifers go to open jails towards the end of their term, where they can walk around freely in the campus and call their family members to their rooms. He said those on life-imprisonment have been far removed from normal life much longer and can get back to a little more freedom before being released. He recalled his time in Tihar, when Gopal Kanda, a former minister from Haryana, who is in jail on charges of driving an air hostess to suicide, distributed blankets to the inmates, while Subrata Roy Sahara, in jail due to non-payment of Rs 1,500 crore, helped organise Sonu Nigam's music performance

The power to do collective good is encouraged. Mohammad Amir Khan was wrongly convicted as a teenager for the 1996-1997 blasts in Delhi and was recently compensated with a sum of Rs 5 lakh for the 14 years of his life he spent in prison, during which time his father died and mother barely survived. He said it took him 14 years to prove his innocence and that it is unfortunate that Muslims are viewed as lesser Indians and have to prove their patriotism; a chilling reminder of justice gone awfully wrong and a case where the State cannot expect to be pardoned for a mere sum.

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2018 14:19:53 IST