We all know who a prisoner is – a person who has been deprived of a certain level of freedom or liberty, typically one who is confined to a prison as a punishment for a crime he/she has committed, or been alleged to have committed.
Even though prisoners are confined to a place because of their misdeeds (hopefully), they are entitled to certain human rights as a normal human being which cannot be taken away. Although prisoners do not have full constitutional rights in India, they possess certain human rights and are still protected under the Constitution.
Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, irrelevant to our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination as these rights are fundamental to us because we are human.
India being a welfare state portrays a socio-legal system based on non-violence, mutual respect and human dignity of the individual and thus when a person commits a crime, he is not condemned to be a non-human. Even then he cannot be deprived of those aspects of life which constitutes human dignity.
There is no express provision in the Indian Constitution which spells out the rights available to prisoners in India, however, the Supreme Court in one of its judgments has stated that the fundamental right to equality, freedom of speech and life are available to prisoners just as freemen. These rights have been elaborated in the following points:
However, these are not the only rights available to the prisoners. There are various human rights available to prisoners and the basic rights include the right to food and water, the right to have an attorney to defend himself, protection from torture, violence and racial harassment. The Supreme Court, in its various judgments, has also stated that the right of protective homes, free legal aid, and speedy trial, right against cruel and unusual punishment, fair trial, right against custodial violence and right to live with human dignity is also implicitly available to the prisoners within the fundamental right to life provided by the Indian Constitution. Therefore, the prisoners do not lose human rights even when they are behind bars.
The Supreme Court of India in one of its landmark judgments has given a very obvious answer to the question that whether prisoners are persons and whether they are entitled to fundamental rights while in custody, it said:
“Are ‘prisoners’ persons? Yes, of course. To answer in the negative is to convict the nation and the Constitution of dehumanization and to repudiate the world legal order, which now recognizes rights of prisoners in the International Covenant on Prisoners’ Rights to which India has signed assent.”
However, these rights are constantly violated as the disturbing conditions of the prison portraying custodial deaths, physical violence/torture, degrading treatment, custodial rape, poor quality of food, lack of water supply, poor health system support, not producing the prisoners to the court, unjustified prolonged incarceration, forced labor and other problems observed by the apex court have led to judicial activism.
In a recent case, the entire Sikandra Police Station of Agra city was booked for an alleged custodial death of a 32-year-old man after he was tortured in front of his 55-year-old mother leading to the suspension of an inspector and two sub-inspectors.
One of the oldest laws of the nation, the Prisons Act, 1894 is a legislation that deals with the laws in relation to prisons in India. The Act has a colonial approach and focuses on the contemporary ideology of reformation of prisoners by changing their heart and mind to become responsible citizens rather than applying punitive and disciplinary measures of taming prisoners like animals in the zoo.
However, prisons are a state subject in India, which means that their administration and control fall under the respective state governments, who are at liberty to make rules and regulations. Over the course of several years, numerous Prison Model Manuals, committees and guidelines have been formed, but structural changes in prisons largely remain insignificant due to lack of consensus between political forums.
In 2016, the Supreme Court took cognizance of the disturbing picture of prisons after examining the conditions of the then 1382 prisons of India and issued guidelines on certain issues plaguing the Indian correctional systems dealing with:
Unfortunately, little has changed. There have been no worthwhile reforms affecting the basic issues of relevance to prison administration in India. Overcrowded prisons, prolonged detention of under trial prisoners, unsatisfactory living condition and allegations of indifferent and even inhuman behavior by prison staff has repeatedly attracted the attention of critics over the years. This has an unfavourable domino effect on the condition of prisons including staffing, facilities and management, resulting in an adverse impact on the mental and physical state of prisoners.
The prisons are made for reformatory purposes and not to break prisoners’ inner self so blatantly that they can never fit into their normal self in the outside world ever after. Therefore, it is the duty of the prison authorities to introduce welfare schemes for the inmates indulging them in something productive and preventing them from engaging in foul or corrupt activities. Moreover, improving prison health is also essential to overcome overall public health issues as the aim of public health policies can never be achieved without improving prison health.
As the famous quote given by the father of our nation Mahatma Gandhi – “Hate the crime, not the criminal” shall be the approach kept in mind in reforming prisoners. A prisoner shall be sent to prison for the punishment and not as a punishment to deprive his personal liberty and privacy. The punitive system of reformation should not reach the pinnacle of destructiveness for human beings from which they can never be reformed.
“No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones”