Once the locale of far-reaching prison reforms, Delhi’s Tihar jail is in the news for the wrong reasons. On Monday, a Delhi court pulled up the prison authorities for failing to respond to charges levelled by an undertrial. The charges are quite serious even by the yardsticks of brutality that Indian prisons are often witness to: The undertrial has alleged that the jail superintendent branded Om on his back with hot metal and said he would convert him to Hinduism. Metropolitan Magistrate Richa Parihar has asked the prison authorities to respond to the undertrial’s charge that he was denied food for days. All this goes against the credo of Delhi’s central jail, underlined in the NCT government’s website: “To provide for minimum standard of living/treatment to the prisoners “.
The website also states that the jail “will provide for the reform and rehabilitation of prisoners”. However, if events in the past three years are anything to go by, the reforms undertaken in Tihar in the 1990s, especially by then Inspector General of Prisons, Kiran Bedi, are being undone. Two years ago, more than 40 inmates of the jail alleged that they were assaulted by the staff on duty. Following these allegations, the Delhi High Court had asked the Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, to probe “why the CCTV cameras inside Tihar were not working when the alleged incident took place”. Now disturbingly, the communal contagion seems to have made its way to the jail.
According to the National Criminal Records Bureau’s Prison Statistics 2015, published last year, the occupancy rates of jails in India is more than 100 per cent. Addressing issues related to the overcrowding of prisons and inadequacy of prison staff is one of the mandates of the Justice Amitava Roy Committee constituted by the Supreme Court, last year. The panel will also “probe the reasons for violence in prisons and correctional homes and recommend preventive measures”. However, this is not the first time that a committee has been formed for such a purpose. The recommendations of the A N Mulla Committee and the V R Krishna Iyer Committee for Women Prisoners in the 1980s proved to be the harbinger of reforms in some prisons in the country, including Delhi’s Tihar Jail. But as the recent cases in Delhi show, the working of these reforms hinge on the sensitivity of the jail personnel. They would do well to go back to the basic principle enshrined in most prison manuals, including that on the Delhi government’s website: “Provide basic minimum facilities to maintain human dignity”.