Prisons and human rights introduction

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This report is based on the proceedings on the workshops on ‘Prisons and Human Rights’ organised at Bhopal by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in collaboration with the Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission (MPHRC). The workshop, conducted on the 25th and 26th of April 1998, was attended by representatives from the Law Commission of India, the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC), MPHRC, Madhya Pradesh State Commission for Women, CHRI, retired and serving officers from the prisons and police departments, ex- prisoners and their family members, members from NGOs, academicins, bureaucrats, journalists and lawyers.

The main objective of the workshop was to sensitise the administration to human rights issues; suggest mechanisms to monitor prison conditions effectively and ensure accountability in respect of violation of human rights; discuss the problems of prison administration and ways to motivate and develop prison staff.
Inaugurated by Mr. Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, the workshop was divided into four sessions with two sessions on each day. The first day’s sessions, presided over by Mr. R.K. Kapoor, former Director, Intelligence Bureau and Mr. Justice Awasthy, Member MP Human Rights Commission, covered issues pertaining to the modernisation of prison administration and motivation and development of prison staff. The second day’s sessions, chaired by Justice Leila Seth, Member, Law Commission of India, discussed the subject of prisoner’s rights: the need for transparency and accountability; and monitoring of prison conditions.
The need for prison reforms has come into focus during the last few decades. The Supreme Court and the High Courts have commented upon the deplorable conditions prevailing inside the prisons, resulting in violation of prisoner’s rights. The problem of prison administration has been examined by numerous expert bodies set up by the Government of India. The most comprehensive examination was done by the All India Jail reforms Committee of 1980-83, popularly known as the Mulla Committee. The National and the State Human Rights Commission have also, in their annual reports, drawn attention to the appalling conditions in the prisons and urged governments to introduce reforms.
Prisoners’ rights have become an important item in the agenda for prison reforms. This is due essentially to the recognition of two important principles. Firstly, the prisoner “is no longer regarded as an object, a ward, or a ‘slave of the state’, who the law would leave at the prison entrance and who would be condemned to ‘civil death’.”1 It is increasingly been recognised that a citizen does not cease to be a citizen just because he has become a prisoner. The Supreme Court has made it very clear in many judgements that except for the fact that the compulsion to live in a prison entails by its own force the deprivation of certain rights, like the right to move freely or to practice a profession of ones choice, a prisoner is otherwise entitled to the basic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.2 Secondly, the convicted persons go to prisons as punishment and not for punishment.3 Prison sentence has to be carried out as per court’s orders and no additional punishment can be inflicted by the prison authorities without sanction. Prison authorities have to be, therefore, accountable for the manner in which they exercise their custody over persons in their care, specially as regards their wide discretionary powers.
It is thus the above two themes- ‘prison administration’ and ‘prisoners’ rights’- are brought under focus in this workshop.
This report summarises the deliberations of the workshop, highlighting the important issues which emerged during the deliberations and the important recommendations which were made during the sessions. The report does not present the deliberations in the chronological sequence in which they were held but groups them under different thematic heads.

Prisoners’ Rights

The Constitution of India confers a number of fundamental rights upon citizens. The Indian State is also a signatory to various international instruments of human rights, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that: “No one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment”4. Also important is the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states in part: “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”5. Therefore, both under national as well as international human rights law, the state is obliged to uphold and ensure observances of basic human rights.

One of the best tenets of human rights law is that human rights are inalienable and under no circumstances can any authority take away a person’s basic human rights. The fact that this tenet is not sometimes made applicable to prisoners is well documented. There are innumerable judgements of Supreme Court and High Courts, showing how prisoners’ rights are violated. The judgement highlighted the highly unsatisfactory conditions prevailing inside the prisons and the failure of the prison authorities to provide an environment which is conducive to the maintenance of prisoners’ rights, partly rooted in the belief that the prisoners do not deserve all the rights and the protections that the constitution provides to all citizens. Besides being morally wrong and legally invalid, this belief does not show adequate recognition of some basic facts about the prison population.
Out of the total population of 2,26,158 in the country on 1.1.1997. 1,63,092 were undertrials.6 Thus 72% of the prison population is not even convicted of any crime. Secondly, even those who are convicts, a large number of them are first time offenders involved in technical or minor violations of law. Very few are recidivists or hardened criminals.7 Also, as was observed by the Mulla Committee, a majority of the inmates come from the “underprivileged sections of the society, as persons with the means and influence generally manage to remain beyond the reach of law even if they are involved in violation of law.”8
It is against the above backdrop that some important rights of the prisoners were discussed in a paper presented at the workshop by Ms. Marion Macgregor of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).9 The paper provided an outline of some important rights of prisoners, like the Right to Live with Human Dignity, Right to Punishment as Prescribed by Law, Right to be Free of Fetters or Handcuffs, Right to Communication and Information, Right to Counsel, Right to Writ of Habeas Corpus and the Right to Air Grievances.
Besides discussing the legal sources of the rights, the paper made some suggestions which could prove helpful in ensuring an element of transparency and accountability in prison administration. Some of the suggestions made in CHRI’s paper will be discussed later in this report.

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