Need for systemic change for undertrial prisoners as triggered by Covid-19

By Dhruva Sareen*

The imposition of the lockdown due to Covid-19 changed a lot of things in the common man’s life. However, one of the hidden facets of our civilization was also undergoing radical transformation. The utilization rates of the Indian prison system are above 170% which means that the prisons are overpopulated to an extent that almost 2 individuals are sharing the space of one prisoner. Due to the wildfire rate at which the virus was spreading, the Supreme Court, in May 2020, advised the Central Government to constitute a High-Powered Committee in consultation with the State Legal Services Authorities to release prisoners on parole to reduce the overpopulation and control the spread of the virus from spreading faster.

This enabled the academicians to ponder over the systemic deficiencies in the prison system due to which multitude of prisoners remain undertrial even without having gotten a trial. This led us to believe that the expediency in which the authorities managed to provide the temporary parole could also be replicated in processing of bail applications and preliminary hearings on a normal basis. To understand the same, we spoke with Ms. Kavita Srivastava from PUCL Jaipur to get a sense of the ground-root reality in the Indian prisons.

Ms. Srivastava suggested that the release of undertrial prisoners on temporary parole was only treating the symptom. The systemic fight between the need for reformation and the convenience of retribution would still persist till the prison conditions remained in the manner they function. To exemplify the same, she gave the example of an open prison in Jaipur wherein prisoners after having completed a minimum of ten years in prison with good behaviour, they were allowed to live in independent homes in a secluded manner with their families. Moreover, they are now allowed to look for work as daily wage earners as long as they report back to their open prison colony in time. The pertinent thing to note is that in the last one decade, only two members have absconded. Thus, she made a very strong case for amelioration of the prison conditions. She mentioned that the volume of crimes can only be reduced if the prison conditions allow the prisoners to reform their minds by self and not by conceptual mandate.

This is supplemented by the recent finding that 65% of the 3500 prisoners who were provided temporary parole in May 2020 absconded and about 5% actually moved back to the commission of crimes. This happened despite close scrutiny of the High-Powered Committee constituted in consultation with State Legal Service Authority in which only those individuals with a clean record and single-crime punishment of less than seven years were considered.

Thus, we believe that a fresh committee should be constituted to provide more prison facilities while also ensuring that the subsisting prisons conditions become better. It is high time that the perception of prisons changes from detention centres to keep the bad elements away from society to that of a correctional facility wherein the inmates can actually pursue reformation. There is infinite potential of transformation in each single unity and the present degrading condition is symbolic of how we, as a society, have forgotten about this facet of human life.

Ms. Srivastava made a very pertinent point citing the case of several activists who have been suffering in inhumane conditions due to the political machinery. She also juxtaposed the case of inmates with political conviction enjoying alcohol and live television while Stan Swamy died in prison waiting for a straw to drink water from in his Alzheimer condition. The system, as evident, is wrong in a lot of ways. However, the increase in number of prisons will create the most impact in the living conditions of the prisoners thereby creating a safe environment for reformation.

Moreover, if the constitution can spare space for two articles on clemency and mercy, there is enough scope for the HPCs and the courts to provide for the betterment of the society at large.

*IIM Ahmedabad | Post Graduate Programme in Management | Batch of 2022

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