Of the many reforms required for effective functioning of the Indian law and justice system, prison reforms are an important part. Unless measures are initiate to bring the Indian prison management in sync with the times, the law and justice system will never be able to work optimally. The various issues requiring urgent attention include the physical structure of prisons, conditions and treatment of prisoners, training and re-orientation of prison personnel, modernization of prisons, and better correctional administration and management.
The Government of India constituted a committee in December 2005 under the Chairmanship of the Director General, Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD), to prepare a draft policy paper on prison reforms and correctional administration. This Committee is said to have made many recommendations, which, if implemented, would make a lot of difference to our prison administration and management.
Among its important recommendations, the Committee is believed to have suggested setting up a Department of Prisons and Correctional Services to deal with adult and young offenders. It also recommended setting up a fulltime National Commission on Prisons. It believed that young offenders aged between 18 and 21 should not be confined to prisons meant for adult offenders, as they become more prone to crimes while in the company of more experienced and hardened criminals. It similarly recommended that persons arrested for politico-economic agitations for public causes should not be confined to prisons with regular prisoners.
Another important problem relating to over-crowding of prisons can be tackled by reducing the population of under-trial prisoners by speedier trials in special fast-track courts, Lok Adalats, special courts and via video conferencing. However, it should be ensured that the prisoners should not be forced to plead guilty in such fast-track courts in the hope of getting a lesser sentence. What is more surprising is that many prisoners keep languishing in jails long after they are acquitted, because of the lack of coordination between the court and prison administration. Modern methods of information technology and e-governance should be pressed into service for improvements in this regard.
Going by the reformative theory of deviance, the confinement of offenders in prison is meant to reform and rehabilitate them as useful citizens rather than penalizing them even after marked positive changes are noticed in them. Hence, the release of lifers and hardened criminals before their stipulated terms should be given serious thought. As far as possible, easier bail provisions, using section 436-A of the Cr.PC and use of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958 should be pressed into service. It would not only reward good behaviour of these prisoners, but also take care of the over-crowding in prisons.
Serious thought should also be given to ensure that prisoners are not denied their basic rights of consultation with their lawyers. It should also be ensured that video conferencing, as proposed, should in no way impede this basic right. The constitutional right to free legal aid, as envisaged in Article 39-A of the Indian Constitution, should be fully implemented. There is also a great need for expedited appeal hearings, which would become possible if the number of judges in the higher judiciary is increased.
Talking about basic amenities within prisons, there is a lot which needs to be done to ameliorate the conditions of prisoners. Adequate sanitation, improved prison wages, all-round entertainment facilities and better health check-up facilities form the bare minimum required if prison are truly to be a place for reforming and rehabilitating an individual rather than further hardened a criminal.
Manpower shortage has been another bane of the Indian prison system which needs to be beefed up for better prison management and security. Apart from reinforcing manpower, prison officials of all ranks also need to be given special training and orientation for further improving prison security and making Indian prisons better places, yoked to the cause of reforming and rehabilitating deviant members of the society. Women and juvenile offenders definitely need better and more sensitive treatment than they get currently.
There is a need for extensive amendments to the colonial-era Prison Act of 1884 as also for the various constituent states of the Indian Union to draft a uniform prison manual if the country is to achieve even some of the reforms envisaged. Also, before going about implementing the BPRD committee's recommendations, it is necessary to give thought to various reasons for the failure to implement the proposals of the earlier Mulla Committee for improving the condition of prisons in India.
Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of India.