The death of convict Manjula Shetye inside Byculla jail on June 23 and the subsequent riot by inmates for better facilities has shone the spotlight on prisoners’ poor access to legal aid and rehabilitation services, which can help them integrate in the mainstream after completion of their sentences.
In many cases, former inmates say, they were not even aware of such services.
Mohammed Atik, who was behind bars for four years in Arthur Road jail and Taloja central jail from 2008 to 2012, says that there is lack of information flow inside prisons from the staff to inmates.
“The jailor and superintendent should ideally communicate with the inmates better. A majority of the inmates do not have financial resources or support outside to access help. They need to be told that they have free legal aid as a right. In my four years in prison, I never saw a lawyer from the legal aid panel visit prisons or the jail authorities informing inmates about them,” Atik says.
That lawyers appointed under the legal aid panel receive a paltry Rs 900 at the end of every trial, even if the trial drags on for a decade, makes it almost impossible for inmates in need of legal help to get access to quality services.
“If there is no access to good legal aid, people end up behind bars for longer. If overcrowding in prisons has to reduce, authorities need to look at these systemic changes,” says a lawyer who works on the legal aid panel in Mumbai.
Atik, a software engineer who has now begun practising as a lawyer, adds that the Supreme Court comes out with various guidelines from time to time on reforming the prison system, but the implementation is poor.
“Prisoners are considered lesser citizens and there is negligence towards their rights. Issues in prisons are taken up after incidents of custodial violence come to the fore and gradually, the focus dies. But these issues should be looked at on a continuous basis,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Maharashtra State Legal Services Authority, which is responsible for ensuring legal aid to all those unable to hire lawyers, continues to struggle with a shortage of lawyers, along with other issues.
In the last one year, until May 2017, the authority had 5,136 empanelled lawyers and trained 6,402 para legal volunteers, of whom half are currently working on cases.
“We are trying to improve the services provided and are also creating awareness about the availability of such services. On July 15, Chief Justice Manjula Chellur will inaugurate the legal assistance cell, under which a tollfree number will be provided for litigants to enquire about the stage of their case. Also, undertrials can interact with empanelled lawyers through video-conferencing. The inauguration will take place in Goa, where the cell is based,” says an official.
Angela Sontakke, who was lodged at Byculla women’s prison for five years, alleges that the jail staff resorted to violence even if inmates asked questions or sought basic facilities.
“Even a simple request made by an inmate is looked at as a complaint against the jail authorities. This would change if the jail staff could have an orientation programme to make them aware of the human rights of the prisoner,” Sontakke says. She adds that the focus of the staff can then be towards reform and rehabilitation of prisoners, instead of maintenance of law and order.
Ravindra Vaidya, founder-president of Varhad, which works with convicted prisoners in Maharashtra, said that the vocational training and employment given by the state prison system currently are outdated.
“The training and employment given to prisoners is in carpentry, for instance. The products do not have any demand. After a prisoner is released after long-term imprisonment, he or she is not prepared to re-enter the workforce as things change rapidly outside,” Vaidya says.
He adds that though a government resolution (GR) passed last year increased the grant-in aid to be given for prisoners on their release from Rs 5000 to Rs 25000, it states that only 50 prisoners are to be entitled for it across the state in a year, which is a far less a figure than the actual number of prisoners released.
In order to better understand the functioning of the jail system and its lacunae, the Prisons Department has now roped in consultancy firm KPMG to study the state’s prisons and to suggest systemic changes.
The mandate of the study is to look at various practices and factors, including how prisoners apply for bail, the functioning of the legal aid committee, the extent of overcrowding, etc. The study will also include the concept of e-prisons.
“While some issues that the KPMG team will look into might overlap with those studied by the five-member committee constituted to look into jail reforms, the team will more specifically deal with systems that are in place, their functioning and will make recommendations to mend or remodel them,” said a senior official from the state Home Department.
“To cite an example, there are complaints of inmates being lodged in jail despite being granted bail. This is either because they don’t have the money to pay the bail amounts or they don’t have a surety. The study by KPMG will look into this aspect both at the macro and micro level and suggest measures to deal with this issue,” added the official.
The study will also look at best practices in prisons across the world. The team is expected to submit its report within two months. “The team is deliberating with senior jail officials on a weekly basis and their recommendations will only help the department better our public image,” added the official.
Experts have said the prison system is visibly unprepared and add that any effort to reform should look at fundamental issues.
“The system comes with a moral flexibility that civil society has which also tolerates the treatment people get inside prisons by thinking that they deserve it. There should be rigour in ensuring that the prison system is run according to the Indian Constitution,” says Dr Murali Karnam, a researcher and expert in prison reform.
(With inputs from Ruhi Bhasin)