One of the main issues that the committee was directed to recommend a solution for is overcrowding in prisons. Can you tell us about the recommendations made by you to tackle this issue?
In our report, we have noted that as per data for April 2018, out of the total prison population, 73 per cent are undertrial prisoners. At Arthur Road jail, the population is three times more than its sanctioned capacity. There are a number of ways that the number of undertrials can be reduced but the most essential is proper legal aid. Article 22 of the Constitution says that every accused person shall have a right to be represented by an advocate of his choice. In reality today, you will find, forget being represented by an advocate of his choice, an undertrial does not even get a lawyer.
A majority of undertrials come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and do not have proper legal representation or requisite documents like address proof. We found that despite getting bail, many undertrials continue to remain in jail as they cannot fulfil conditions for bail set by the courts. We came across one person who had got bail on a surety of Rs 1,500 but nobody was willing to help him. We have recommended that the trial courts be sensitised towards such cases and other means like releasing prisoners on personal bond be allowed at least in cases where punishment is not more than seven years.
Bail is given on the condition that a prisoner will attend trial and not evade it. The Criminal Procedure Code does not have provisions for monetary bail at all. It states that bail be give on conditions as deemed fit and proper by the court. Why do you have to stick to monetary bail that is preventing many from coming out? In cases where you find it fit to release a person on non-monetary conditions, it should be done. For instance, if a youngster is to be released, his principal or some community elder can take responsibility of his attendance before court.
Is there scope for improvement in the work of the District Legal Services Authority, which is responsible for free legal aid for undertrials who cannot afford lawyers in each district?
Yes, lawyers part of the free legal aid panel told us that the current honorarium for them is so low that it is not even enough to cover their expenses to travel between jails and courts or for paperwork. Due to insufficient pay, lawyers are disinterested in taking up cases. We have recommended that the honorarium should be increased to at least Rs 2,000 per effective hearing. In some areas, for instance, in Kalyan, we found the Bar Association to be quite active, with lawyers regularly visiting jails. I feel that courts, the DLSA and Bar Associations should take the initiative to get young lawyers to take up legal aid in an organised manner. We had also engaged students of law colleges to go to prisons and help identify cases where bail has been granted but the undertrial is inside or where undertrials are without proper representation. We hope that the practice can be implemented in support from colleges and the state on a long-term basis.
When it comes to convicts, what are the recommendations made by the committee, including on aftercare post-release, which forms a major part of the correctional aspect of the prison administration?
We have suggested that there should be measures including temporary shelters post-release for women without any support (also for undertrial prisoners), counselling, emergency financial assistance, information centres in every district to provide information on schemes and other facilities. A grant-in aid of up to Rs 25,000 should be made available for starting small business enterprises for women prisoners as well.
We have also recommended appropriate vocational training and skill development for prisoners. The Maharashtra State Skill Development Society met the committee in January and agreed to start a pilot project for prisoners in Yerwada, Thane and Nashik Borstal School. In Nashik jail, we met a convict who has trained 15 inmates to make Ganpati idols. Last year, they made 2,000 idols, which were sold, and this year they have got an order for 3,500 idols. They were paid Rs 61 per day. The amount is much less than those earned by unskilled labourers under the government’s employment schemes. Why should a skilled person not be paid at par with the minimum wages only because he is in prison? We have recommended an increase in the wages for them to be reviewed periodically.
Women prisoners also face a lot of issues, including those of health. What have been the recommendations in that regard?
As an immediate measure, the committee directed repairs and construction required in women’s jails. We also suggested that priority should be given for women inmates to meet their children who are outside. For all prisoners, weekly OPDs have been directed to be begun including gynaecologists and paediatricians. The stigma attached to prisons has a significant impact on the lives of women. We have recommended that the Probation of Offenders Act or supervised community service should be used in cases of women accused of petty offences instead of a prison term.
The lack of sufficient prison staff is also said to be one of the reasons for prison mismanagement. Does this also require immediate attention?
As per the Model Prison Manual, 2016, the general principle is that there should be one guarding staff for every six prisoners. Due to overcrowding, this ratio is not maintained in the jails. We have recommended that the state government fill all vacancies of prison staff. It is also important that since prison management is very different from other forms of policing, the focus should be not on control of prisoners but their rehabilitation. It is very necessary that the staff remains compassionate and empathetic towards prisoners.
There have been previous prison committees, whose recommendations still remain unimplemented. How hopeful are you about your report not meeting the same fate?
At the time of our working, we had decided that apart from just making recommendations as part of the final report, we will attempt to activate various measures so that they can be executed immediately. For instance, directions were given to health authorities regarding OPDs for prisoners, infrastructural changes were made with directions given to the PWD. I am hopeful that the committee’s recommendations are taken into account. The experience has been very revealing about the amount of hardship suffered by prisoners. If the system is properly organised, these hardships can be minimised.