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A retired judge, cops and a professor: Five-member committee keen to make a difference for prisoners

“We have enroled students from 15 law colleges in Mumbai, Thane, Ulhasnagar and Pune. Each college has been sending at least 15 students to visit prisons and help undertrials including filing applications for bail, surety or other legal issues,” says Radhakrishnan.

Written by Sadaf Modak | Mumbai |
Updated: January 22, 2018 5:10:04 am
s radhakrishnan, indian express, bombay high court, maharashtra government, mumbai prison reforms For Radhakrishnan, as much as he and his team look to submit a report of recommendations to the government, he says, he does not want it to end up like the fate of many committees, their recommendations lying on paper. (File)

BEFORE HIS appointment as an additional Judge of the Bombay High Court in 1996, Justice (retired) Dr S Radhakrishnan taught law students for over a decade. As chairperson of the five-member committee constituted by the Maharashtra government on directions from the High Court, to look into prison reforms in the state, one of Radhakrishnan’s ideas was to rope in law students for legal aid to undertrial prisoners.

“We have enroled students from 15 law colleges in Mumbai, Thane, Ulhasnagar and Pune. Each college has been sending at least 15 students to visit prisons and help undertrials including filing applications for bail, surety or other legal issues,” says Radhakrishnan.

In one of its first meetings in July since it was set up, the committee was informed that there were at least 642 prisoners across the state languishing in jails despite being granted bail, as most could not arrange surety as a safeguard to guarantee their presence at their trial.

Using his previous experience with students as a teacher and as a judge where he traveled with students in trains on visits to jails and the community for awareness, the 71-year old says that the idea behind the committee roping in students was to ensure that a permanent system is in place that will continue even as new batches of students join the colleges.

For Radhakrishnan, as much as he and his team look to submit a report of recommendations to the government, he says, he does not want it to end up like the fate of many committees, their recommendations lying on paper. The committee has therefore held meetings with senior government authorities and multiple stakeholders including prisoners.

“A substantial number of undertrials are poor and illiterate and do not have access to legal aid. The Constitution safeguards each prisoner’s right to be defended by an advocate of his choice. If you ask me, there has to be a very well-organised legal aid system for that, which is presently in a bad state,” says Radhakrishnan.

For all the members of the committee, which includes Additional Director General Police (prisons) Dr Bhushan Kumar Upadhyay, Retired DIG (prisons) S N Chavan and Professor Dr Vijay Raghavan of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, overcrowding of prisons is an important issue to find a solution to. “We are aware of the issues being spoken about by various stakeholders. Here in the committee, we are flagging these issues in a different way,” says Upadhyay, adding that the committee will submit a report based on which the state government will decide on the recommendations made.

Chavan, who was the superintendent of prisons in Thane, Nashik and Yerwada in Pune before he retired as DIG Aurangabad, says that in cities such as Mumbai and its suburbs, the issue of overcrowding has been persistent. “This is at the core of most issues in prisons. Less population would mean better facilities in jails. We are also looking at the issue of vacant prison posts. The committee is also looking at making state prisons as per the guidelines issued in the Model Prison Reforms, 2016,” says Chavan. He says he is interested in initiatives such as ‘gala bhet’, where convicts can meet their children at least once a month inside the prison’s canteen or recreation hall, instead of through an iron mesh or glass barriers.

Raghavan, who has been working on the issue of prisons since 1990 as the first social worker for Prayas, a field action project of TISS, says his ‘mixed experience’ of a field worker who is now working with a government committee makes him positive of the results of the panel’s work. “If you are working as a social worker in a jail working with X number of people, you are still able to make a difference in the lives of those people, because you are working in a smaller ecosystem. The more far removed you get from the field into such committees, there is not much control on whether your suggestions will get accepted but one has to keep at it like a mountain man chipping away, not knowing when things will fall in place,” says Raghavan.

As amicus curiae on a petition on children of prisoners and member of a previous committee, Raghavan has flagged issues including need for better healthcare facilities, especially for women prisoners. “For instance, in one of the civic hospitals, the staff was not admitting prisoners due to some previous incident. Even prisoners who needed urgent care had to be taken to J J Hospital. We sat with the superintendent of the jail and hospital authorities and attempted to sort the issue out,” says Raghavan.

The committee’s intervention led to a direction by the Directorate of Health Services to civic hospitals across the state to conduct weekly Out Patient Department examination in jails. Raghavan adds that prisoners cannot be looked at only in the context of their alleged offences. “One image that has stayed with me from our visits to various prisons is that of the prison guards and jailor standing along with other prisoners as accused persons (The six jail staffers of Byculla women’s jail arrested for the murder of convict inmate Manjula Shetye).

I know it will be difficult for the rest of the world to believe, but I also saw them in some ways as victims of the system within the prison and criminal justice system who may have done something wrong but were they the only ones responsible or whether there were other factors, that is true of all crimes where you know that the person alone is not responsible,” says Raghavan. sadaf.modak@expressindia.com

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