By Manali Joshi
In the year 2014, a letter written by former Chief Justice of India, R.C. Lahoti was converted into a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). It raised two key issues with respect to overcrowding and unnatural deaths taking place across the 1,382 prisons of the country. This particular initiative became a great example of the courtís activism in ensuring justice for the prisoners, in the absence of any initiative by the central and state governments to take timely remedial steps to alleviate their suffering. However, the case is still pending in the Supreme Court.
Magnitude of overcrowding
On 3 October 2014, the bench presided by Justice Madan B. Lokur was informed that several jails across the country were overcrowded by around 150%. The data reveals that eight jails in Assam, 17 in Chhattisgarh, three in Jharkhand, seven in Karnataka, 21 in Kerala, five in Madhya Pradesh, 16 in Maharashtra, 21 in Rajasthan, 47 in Uttar Pradesh and 12 in Delhi have reported of being overcrowded.
In its previous order, the court had asked the states and union territories to submit a plan of action to reduce overcrowding in prisons, however, none could come up with a concrete plan of reformation.
Although there are some options available to resolve the problem of overcrowding, such as constructing new prisons, these come with more risks than potential benefits.
Risky, non-open jail options
Constructing more prisons can be a possible solution to the problem at hand. However, one of the essentials to implement this solution is the availability of adequate land. The prisons usually are built within the cities, somewhere near the courts in order to allow for convicts to appear in court more easily. Unfortunately, given the price of land and the number of people living in urban areas, it is difficult to acquire land within cities. Thus it creates the need to acquire land on the outskirts of the city. Although this appears to be an effective solution to over-crowded prison wards, most prison departments are reluctant to implement it due to the shortage of available prison guards. Moreover, any issue that obstructs the process of an accused being brought before a court would mean an interruption in accessing justice.
Another solution could be the instant release of the undertrial prisoners contingent on their eligibility under the provisions of Section 437 of the Criminal Penal Code (CPC). However, granting bail or even dismissing a case involves judicial discretion. Such an application of the judicial mind is subject to the time available per case and subsequent presence of the accused in court at certain time intervals. Now, in most of the cases, the accused does not have a lawyer who can represent him in the court. Hence, till a lawyer is allotted to an accused, the accused is by default sent to the prison and the case gets stagnated for a long period of time. Such lengthy trials then affect the prison population and the only solution to this vicious cycle is the creation of an effective legal aid mechanism.
Given these issues, Rajasthanís prison rules provide a model worth emulating across the country.
Rajasthanís model of open prisons
Rajasthan has 28 open prisons, where prisoners go out of the prison in the morning to earn a living and return to the camp by night. The camps also house the families of the prisoners. According to Ajit Singh, Rajasthanís director general of prisons, a procedure is followed for discerning eligible prisoners to be sent to the open camp. Anyone who is convicted for more than five years and has done one-third of his sentence is eligible to go to open camp. Now, as the number of people eligible is far more than the number of open camps available, the people are sent according to the time spent in prison by the convict.
On the possibility of prisoners escaping from such camps, Singh said that last year, in the Sangnare open camp, he had to forcefully evict prisoners from open camps because they had completed their sentence and were overstaying in the camp but still refused to leave.
Nationwide open prisons?
Independent researcher Smita Chakraburtty was appointed as the honorary prison commissioner by the Rajasthan State Legal Services Authority to conduct interviews of 428 prisoners covering 15 open prisons spread across the state between April to November 2017. Her research noted that construction of open prisons will not only help in reducing the overcrowding of prisons but shall also have many socio-economic advantages for both the state and the inmates.
The study compares Jaipur central prison with Sanganer open prison and points out that in an open prison, only one prison staff member was required per 80 prisoners. This makes the working of an open prison a lot more cost effective. With all their benefits, open prisons proved 78 times cheaper than closed prisons. While the cost per prisoner in Jaipur central prison was Rs 7,094 per month, the cost at Sanganer open prison was just Rs 500 per month.
The study reveals that the construction of an open prison is much more feasible than a closed prison in terms of land and infrastructure. The study states that every closed prison can have an open prison built immediately next to its boundary wall, referring to the Alwar open prison which has come up in a cluster of small quarters built immediately outside the boundary wall of the closed prison. A few other ways, the study noted, to construct open prisons was to construct clay huts in remote areas and facilitate prisoners to learn agricultural work or forest preservation work.
Scope for reformation
The report states that in addition to all the economic benefits accrued by the government, it also helps the prisoners to start afresh and aids in their social reintegration. The study found that, even the most criminal minded offenders who were convicted under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, have shown a positive behavioural transformation after coming to the open prison and that no new offence was perpetrated by them.
Although great advantages are attached to the construction of more open prisons, both, the lack of land and the potential for prisoners to escape, still pose a dominating threat. Moreover, it can also add to the burden of the judicial authority to decide upon who all and in what proportion of women, men, juveniles, handicapped, under trials, convicts of serious offences and habitual offenders can be sent to the open prisons and at what time intervals.
Featured Image Credits:†VisualHunt
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