Byculla jail violence: State must pay heed to Bombay High Court order, improve prison conditions

On 24 June, 2017, 291 female inmates of Mumbai's Byculla prison started rioting. This happened because 31-Year-old Manjula Shetye had died while in the prison. It was the inmates' case that Shetye suffered severe injuries as a result of being brutally assaulted by prison officials. Shetye suffered the treatment because she had complained about bad rations being given for breakfast. Five prison officials have been arrested for her death.

Most people in India forget that prisons exist. This is partly because the social mind considers a convict as outside the realm of ordinary society, therefore, prisoners and their rights seldom feature into our social and ordinary discourse. But the state cannot afford to ignore the prisons or the prisoners. The state, though, when it sends someone to prison, takes responsibility for their lives and the state accordingly has a corresponding duty to make sure that the prisoners are cared for properly. After all the whole aim of rehabilitation through imprisonment is based on the fact that in prison people will learn to become more constructive members of the society. The idea is defeated if our prisons don't run up to the adequate standards that can ensure that the inmates are treated with basic human dignity.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

But there is a deeper problem brewing in our prisons, and that is that they are grossly overcrowded and the facilities are rotting. In fact, the Bombay High Court had made specific observations on the terrible conditions at the Arthur Road Jail only in March 2017, and had ordered the state government to take immediate corrective steps.

Criminal PIL No.9 of 2017 [CRPIL (L) 46 of 2015] is a PIL before the high court on the very point of how prisoners were being treated. During the course of the PIL, the high court had ordered that the conditions in some jails be looked at.

AS Shende, Judge of the City Civil and Sessions Court, Mumbai, submitted her observations on the Byculla prison. These are reproduced at paragraph 30 and the conditions in the prison may give us some insight into what may have led the prisoners to riot.

There are no separate bathrooms provided for women in the barracks. There are 17 bathrooms, all of which are on the ground floor of the prison. Shende added that many of the women prisoners were denied access to their children, and lastly, the most shocking part of the report was that the prisoners were reluctant to eat the cereals provided with meals as they give a disagreeable smell. She also observed that there is a dearth of sufficient female staff at the prison and the rest of the prison is understaffed. Since there is only one bed in the prison, if two inmates fall sick, one has to sit while the other is lying down. There is no bathroom for the patients nor is there any space for medical isolation.

At paragraph 32, the observations report of AA Khan, Additional Judge of the City Civil and Sessions Court, Mumbai, have been reproduced.

He notes that against the sanctioned strength of 804 prisoners, there are actually 2,466 prisoners lodged in that prison. If one looks at the statistics provided by the prison department by the end of June 2017, the amount had soared to 3,100.  The toilets were unhygienic and since no separate bathroom was given to prisoners they have to take a bath outside.

The Bombay High Court came down heavily on the government and passed a series of directions in its order. It ordered that more prisons be constructed to solve the overcrowding. It also ordered that separate toilets be built for women and existing ones be repaired. It ordered the state government to fix that problem. Further, it said that arrangements have to be made for prisoners to meet their families and that instead of metal bars that are the norm, transparent acrylic windows should be provided so the pensioners are clearly visible.

It also ordered that a permanent committee of social workers and dieticians be constituted to ensure that the food quality is appropriate in each jail. These committees are to be organised district-wise and are supposed to make surprise monthly visits to check the quality of food being supplied.

The state was also directed to evolve a scheme for ensuring that women prisoners are able to meet minor children who are not staying with them. They ordered a committee on prison reform to be constituted within a month and the committee was to submit its report within six months of being constituted.

The high court in its interim order dated 3 March, 2016, had also noted:

"We are afraid from the report received in respect of the Yerwada, Arthur Road and Byculla prisons since it is apparent that proper basic amenities are not provided in terms of toilets, bathrooms and medical aid to the prisoners. We, therefore, direct the superintendent of all prisons in all over Maharashtra to ensure that these basic amenities are provided to the prisoners. We also direct the state government to undertake the repair and renovation work of the toilets and bathrooms on an urgent basis. Compliance report to be filed within four weeks. Copy of this order to be communicated to all the superintendent of prisons in Maharashtra."

However, the state government hadn't complied with the interim order dated 3 March, 2016, or the interim directions issued till the date of judgment on 1 March, 2017. The high court took note of the government's vague attempts at compliance and took a dim view of it.

The high court has passed a comprehensive order on prison reform. It is a landmark judgment. The government should be shocked at the conditions of the prisons and should be working non-stop to have them resolved. After all, a prisoner is in the care of the state. It is no ordinary responsibility that the state takes upon itself. As a society every citizen is responsible for the welfare of its prisoners. But, unfortunately, what seems to be the case is despite shocking reports coming after inspection, and an interim order as early as 3 March of last year, hardly anything concrete has been done to improve the conditions of prisoners in prisons. But instead, the government has been shuffling its feet at compliance.

This cannot be allowed to continue. A society is not judged by the great heights it achieves but must be judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable. The state's approach to its prisoners is dismal and the society should be ashamed of the conditions that the prisoners are put through. There is no room of rehabilitation if there is no room for respect for their human dignity. The dignity of prisoners must be respected and the state government needs to buck up and figure out how to fix this problem as soon as possible.

Updated Date: Jul 04, 2017 07:09 AM

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