If numbers are to be believed, at least 4,923 undertrial prisoners have been released from Maharashtra’s jails between July 2015 and January 2016. Their release has been in pursuance of a Supreme Court directive that asked states to release on bail those prisoners who had served at least half the sentence they would have been awarded if convicted.
This number of released prisoners accounts for nearly 24.74 per cent of Maharashtra’s last-known undertrial population of 19,895 prisoners and has made activists skeptical about the claims of the government.
A total of 5,819 prisoners were released across the country after the SC’s order, with Maharashtra accounting for nearly 85 per cent of these released prisoners. The second largest number is from Uttar Pradesh, with 198 released undertrials.
These numbers were made public in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday by MoS Home Affairs Haribhai Chaudhary.
In June 2013, Justice R C Lahoti, a former Chief Justice of India, had written a letter to the then CJI, inviting attention to the inhuman conditions prevailing in 1,382 prisons across India. The letter was taken up as a public interest writ petition, and on April 2015, the SC passed an order, directing steps be taken to improve the conditions of prisons.
Among the various directives, one was to ask all the states to ensure that the Under Trial Review Committees of each consider the cases of undertrial prisoners, entitled to the benefit of Section 436A.
Under this section, all those undertrials who have served half of the maximum period of imprisonment prescribed for the offence they are accused of, can be released on bail. The only rider is that the prisoner should not be an accused of an offence punishable by death.
“The Under Trial Review Committee should specifically look into aspects pertaining to effective implementation of Section 436 of the CrPC and Section 436A of the CrPC, so that undertrial prisoners are released at the earliest and those who cannot furnish bail bonds due to poverty are not subjected to incarceration only for that reason,” a two-member bench of Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice R K Agarwal had said in an order, dated February 2016, while evaluating the implementation of the previous recommendations.
The state has, meanwhile, claimed that all the State Legal Services Authorities (SLSAs) had been requested by National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) to urgently take up the cases of the undertrial prisoners, entitled to the benefit of Section 436A of CrPC, and to instruct the panel lawyers to urgently meet such prisoners and move appropriate application before the courts for their release.
“Under Trial Review Committees have been established in every district across the country, comprising of district judges as chairman and secretary, district legal services authorities as one of the members to monitor and review the cases of aforesaid under-trial prisoners for their early release,” Haribhai Chaudhary said in Parliament.
When contacted, Maharashtra Additional Chief Secretary Vijay Satbir Singh said that he was on leave. ADGP (Prisons) BK Upadhyay could not be contacted.
Activists have been skeptical about the high numbers shown for Maharashtra. “The SC directive had explicitly named Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh in its order, due to their high undertrial population. However, the number of persons released account for nearly 24 per cent of Maharashtra’s undertrial population, which is a huge number. Interestingly, when we had sought these numbers through an RTI application, they had refused to share them,” said Sugandha Mathur, Project Officer, Prison Reform Common Wealth Human Rights Initiative.
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