Sunday, Nov 30, 2003
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By Our Special Correspondent
NEW DELHI. NOV. 29. When the courts sentence a person to a term of imprisonment they deprive him of his liberty but not of his other freedoms. Yet prison conditions in India are such that prisoners are deprived of the basic right to a life of dignity and of basic minimum needs, such as hygienic living conditions, a wholesome diet and timely medical attention.
Those concerned with prison reforms see in the "prison visitors system" - which allows for a board of visitors drawn from society at large - an opportunity for society to intervene in a "very closed and corrupt prison system."
Based on its work with prison visitors in Madhya Pradesh, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has put together a "Handbook for Prison Visitors" to assist in understanding the role and the powers of the "unofficial visitors" to influence improvements in the jail conditions. Launching the handbook, Justice Sujata Manohar, member, National Human Rights Commission, said that in a way it addressed the question "how do we make our system work?"
The rights of prisoners she said had been the subject of some of the earliest public interest litigations in the Supreme Court.
In 1980, acting on a complaint to it made on a postcard by Sunil Batra, a prisoner in Delhi, the Supreme Court ruled that "no prisoner can be personally subjected to deprivation not necessitated by the fact of incarceration and the sentence of the court. All other freedoms belong to him."
The NHRC's special rapporteur on custodial justice, Chaman Lal, set out the major problems with the system. The entire system he said was "old". The jail buildings were old, the laws were archaic and the mindset of the state and society with regard to prisons and prisoners was from another age. "Society still thinks that those in jail are the scum of society and not deserving of sympathy." He said that it was this old system that turned ordinary criminals out with "doctorates in crime".
Mr. Chaman Lal said that apart from the general attitude to prisoners, the indignities that prisoners faced were also due to overcrowding. Many thousands were using a few facilities designed for a few hundred. However, he cautioned against an expansion of facilities as the solution to the problem. For conditions in jails to improve, he said, the police's powers of arrest and the functioning of the courts would have to be looked at anew.
The combination of excessively wide-ranging powers of arrest and a judicial system defined by delays was the real problem. The jails were filled with undertrials nearly 75 per cent of prisoners are undertrials because the police used their powers of arrest without due discretion and because the courts failed to deliver justice in reasonable time. He also drew attention to the flaws in the legal aid system. The vast majority of the undertrials were poor and did not get any "meaningful benefit" from the legal aid they were entitled to. Maja Daruwala of the CHRI was particularly critical of the legal profession involved in "legal aid" work. She said it was legal aid lawyers who were "most culpable", as they failed to do what mere humanity demanded they do, despite being paid and provided the facilities to pursue the cases assigned to them.
The CHRI, Ms. Daruwala said, hoped to make a small dent in this system of impunity with its handbook for prison visitors. The handbook explains the context of the prison visiting system, rights of prisoners, the problems faced by undertrials and convicted prisoners as well the problems faced by prison staff. Its approach, its author, R. Sreekumar, said, was "non-confrontational".
The handbook sets out the duties, powers and responsibilities of prison visitors, the different judicial and district officials they can involve in the process and the alternative remedies that they can suggest to problems they find. It also includes the orders and directives of the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission on matters relating to prisons and the rights of prisoners, not easily available to the lower judiciary and district administration.
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