Judicial Activism in Prison Reform

In Sunil Batra (II) v Delhi Administration (1980) 3 SCC 488, the Supreme Court emphasised the role of the courts in the context of the enforcement of human rights within the prison walls to see that the prisoners I were not treated in arbitrary and cruel rilanner. The Court said: Conviction for  a crime does not reduces the person into a non-person whose rights are subject to the whims of the prison administration .In Dharambir v State of U.P. (1979) 3 SCC 465, the State Government was advised to effect reforms by drawing up a set of rules for a more enlightened prison administration. In Tapas Kumar Dutta v State of Bihar (1997) 10 SCC 382, the appellant during the pendency of appeal continued his education and submitted his Ph.D. thesis. With a view to reform him and reclaim him as a member of the society, the sentence reduced by the court.

The Courts in India in recent years have interpreted the rights of ‘prisoners rather liberally, by giving a deeper and innovative meaning to the concept of ‘procedure  and ‘liberty’ in Art 21 of the Constitution of India.

i)       Access to court and legal facilities:– In M.H. Haskot v state of Maharashtra (1978) 3 SCC 544, the Supreme Court laid down that when sentencing a person to prison term, the courts shall give a free copy of the judgment to him, and where such copy being sent to jail authorities for delivery to prisoner, the official concerned shall deliver it quickly to the prisoner. Where the prisoner seeks to file an appeal or revision, every facility for exercise of that ‘right shall be made available by the Jail Administration. Where the prisoner is ‘disabled from engaging a lawyer on reasonable grounds, the court shall assign competent counsel for him. In Francis Coralie v Union Territory of Delhi (AIR 1981 SC 746), the court said that the right of detenu to consult a legal adviser of his choice for any purpose is not limited to criminal proceedings but also for securing release from preventive detention or filing a writ petition.

ii)    Meeting with family members and friends:-In Francis Coralie case, the court said that rules of jail manual which permitted detenus (persons detained under preventive detention) to meet relatives, etc. Only once in a month, while similar facility available once and twice in a week to convicts and undertrials, are arbitrary and violative of Articles 14 and 21 of Constitution.

iii)  Expression and communication:- In State of Maharashtra Prabhakar Pandurang (AIR 1976 SC 424), the court held that a detenu can write ‘or publish a book. In Prabha Dutt v Union of India (1982) I SCC 1, the court held that press is entitled to interview prisoners unless weighty reasons to the contrary existed. Further, a prisoner has the right to communicate and have interviews with relatives, friends and legal advisers and also the press people.

iv)   Compensation:- In cases of wrongful imprisonment and physical injuries suffered by prisoners due to negligence of prison staff, they should be given some relief. Thus, in Rudal Shah v State of Bihar (AIR 1983 SC 1086), the Supreme Court awarded damages to a victim of wrongful imprisonment for 14 years after his acquittal.

In a recent case –Ankul Chandra Pradhan v UOI (AIR 1997 SC 2814), the Supreme Court held that the prisoners cannot claim fundamental rights on i par with others and therefore their separate classification under Sec.62(5) of Representation of the People Act, 1951 is reasonable (the said section denies prisoners the ‘right to vote’).

The Supreme Court observed: A person who is in prison as a result of his own conduct and is,’ therefore, deprived of his liberty during the period of his imprisonment cannot claim equal freedom of movement, speech and expression with the others who are not in prison. The classification of persons in and out of prison separately is reasonable. Restriction on voting of a person in prison results automatically from his confinement as a logical consequence of imprisonment. In view of the restriction on movement of a prisoner, he cannot claim that he should be provided the facility to go and vote. Moreover, if the object is to keep persons with criminal background away from the election scene, a provision imposing a restriction on a prisoner to vote cannot be called unreasonable.

It is submitted that the decision in the aforesaid case is to a certain extent a reversal of the ongoing crusade of the Court for ameliorating conditions of prisons. Right to vote is a very valuable human right. It is a very important part of taking part in Republican form of Government. Can this be denied on the ground of confinement or incarceration?

Directions of the Supreme Court to the prison administrators

1)     The young and unconvicted inmates must be separated and freed from exploitation by other adult prisoners. Violation of this imperative will offend Article 19 of the Constitution.

2)     Subject to search and discipline and other security criterial, the right to society of fellow men, parents and other family members cannot be denied in the light of Article 19 and its sweep.

3)     Lawyers nominated by the courts be given all facilities for interviews, visits and confidential communication with prisoners subject to discipline and security considerations.

4)     District Magistrates and Sessions Judge shall visit prisons in their jurisdiction and afford effective opportunities for ventilating legal grievances.

5)     The State shall take steps to keep up to the standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners recommended by U.N., especially those relating to work and wages, treatment with dignity, community contact and correctional strategies.

6)     Prisons Act need modification. A correctional-cum orientation course has become necessary for the prison staff.’

7)     The prisoner’s right shall be protected b the court by its writ jurisdiction plus contempt power. For this, free legal services to be given to the prisoners through legal aid societies

Jail Committee on Prisoner’s Rights

The Jail Reforms Committee 1980- 83 (headed by Justice A.N. Mulla) has made recommendations regarding prisoner’s rights (influenced by the judicial activism). It has recommended the inclusion of following rights in the proposed scheme of ‘National Prison Legislation’ :

(1) Right to Human Dignity,

(2) Right to Minimum Needs,

(3) Right to Communication,

(4) Right to Access to Law,

(5) Right Against Arbitrary Prison Punishments,

(6) Right of Meaningful and Gainful Employment, and,

(7) Right to be Released on Due Date.

All the above rights are already contained in the Constitution, jail manuals and judicial pronouncement but the real challenge is regarding their implementation.

In a recent case –Rama Murthy v State of Karnataka (AIR 1997 SC 1739), the Supreme Court took note of the pathetic conditions of prisons in India. The Court observed that the prison system is afflicted by nine major problems, viz. over-crowding, delay in trial, torture and ill-treatment, neglect of health and -hygiene, insubstantial food and: inadequate clothing prison vices, deficiency in communication, streamlining jail visits and management of open-air prisons. The court said that though overcrowding in jail is not constitutionally impermissible, but the same affects health and hygiene and therefore, must be taken care of . For taking care of the prison vices, something should be done to keep the thread of conjugal life unbroken. Further, introduction of liberalized communication facilities is also required. Needful steps should be taken for streamlining jail visits. The question of introduction of open air prisons at least In District Headquarters of the country should be considered.

The Court further observed that release on bail/parole/ remission, recourse to alternatives to incarceration such as fine, civil commitment and probation should be considered. In this connection, the authorities concerned must take appropriate decision on the 78th   Report of Law Commission of India and Report of All India Committee on Jail Reforms within 6 months. In the context of torture and ill-treatment, enaction of a new Prison Act and framing of a model new All India Jail Manual should be considered. The authorized persons should inspect the standard of food and clothing, and the need of ‘complaint box’ in all jails should be considered.

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