Currently, there are about 4 lakh prisoners in 1,401 prison institutions across India. In addition to the inmates, there are hundreds of thousands of family members, police personnel, judges, prosecutors, defenders, families of victims, and others who are directly or indirectly involved in the prison system. According to Ajay Verma, chairperson of India's National Forum for Prison Reform—a group of lawyers that fights for implementation of reforms across prisons—the system is not designed to serve people well.
As a lawyer and as a prison activist, Verma provides free access to legal aid to inmates and fights for prevention of torture during detention. Pre-trial detention can be a particular source of injustice in the justice system, wherein prisoners can face horrific incidents of abuse from authorities looking for confessions, or neglect from poor facilities and complicated legal processes. Verma is also the head of the India chapter of International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), a non-government organisation that focuses on fighting pre-trial abuses nationwide.
Part of his work at IBJ is aimed at providing better access to mental health care for undertrials. Given the demand for psychiatrists and counsellors, Verma collaborated with third and fourth year psychology students from Indraprastha College for Women to create a team who could interact with women inmates.
Over an interview in his south Delhi office, Verma laid out the 10 things that need to change most urgently in prisons across the country.
1. Legal aid is insufficient
“The first thing that will help many inmates is effective legal aid,” said Verma, calling access to legal aid “the biggest challenge inmates face in jails. Two-thirds of prisoners in India are undertrials. Poor inmates are unable to afford a lawyer. Legal aid to an undertrial is a constitutional right but in reality it is perceived as a privilege.”
In April 2017, the government actually asked lawyers to offer “Pro Bono legal services” to underprivileged litigants who were unable to afford a lawyer. That July, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), a government body that provides legal services to those who can’t afford it, decided to map all prisoners in 1,401 prisons across the country, list charges against them and provide legal aid to those unable to engage an advocate. That project is ongoing.
2. Records are hard to access
“There should be a unified prison management system that has records of all inmates so they don’t have to run from pillar to post for copies of documents like court orders. The NLSA, also recommended this project. So once someone comes to jails, all his details can be accessed through the prison management system. There should be collaboration of data so when even if a lawyer visits a jail, he should be able to access charge sheet, court orders etc. This project has worked well in Delhi’s Tihar.”
3. Prison staff need a lot more training
“It is of paramount importance that the prison staff is trained in how to treat and deal with inmates. Sometimes officers who come from different departments have no experience of prisoners. The Supreme Court, in September 2017, has directed that there should be proper training manuals for senior staff,” Verma pointed out.
The Supreme Court has also asked the states to conduct training and sensitisation programmes for senior police officers of all prisons on their functions, duties and responsibilities and the rights and duties of prisoners. Verma said, “It is important so they are aware of the rights of inmates”—for example the rights to legal aid, a speedy trial, protection from torture, a reasonable wage, and protection from solitary confinement.
4. Inmate wages need to go up
Speaking of wages, Verma said “Wages that are paid to prisoners who are serving sentences should be increased and should be at par with the outer world, society. So that when they come out, they have some better finances.” The minimum wage in Delhi jails is rated according to minimum wages, but hasn’t been hiked in several years. Out of these wages, 25 percent is deducted for a victims welfare fund to recompense victims of crimes.
5. Skill development leads to better chances of employment
“The major role prisons should play is of reformation and making sure that, once out, inmates are properly integrated into society. That is possible when more skill development programs are introduced in the jails to enhance their chances of earning,” said Verma.
“We have started a skill development course with Gems and Jewellery Skill Council of India in Tihar .The other skills that the jail authorities teach are automobile repairs, electrical skills, garment-making, air-conditioning work, construction, woodwork and others. Other jails in India should also focus on imparting skills.”
6. Conjugal visits should be encouraged
“Currently, there are no laws that govern conjugal visits to inmates in the country,” Verma told us. The status of conjugal visits varies from state to state: while the Punjab and Haryana High Courts already allow married inmates to have sex with their spouses (only for the purpose of procreation), the Maharashtra High Court also asked the state government, in 2010, why prisoners can’t have sex. Earlier this year, a prisoner at a Tamil Nadu prison was granted a conjugal leave “for the purpose of procreation.”
Verma believes “conjugal visits should be allowed in every prison,” and not just for raising families. “It helps in de-stressing inmates,” Verma told us, “and also helps them in bonding with their family.
7. There aren’t enough welfare or law officers
“As per the Prison Act, 1894 and Prisoner Act, 1900, there should be a welfare officer and a law officer in each jail. In Tihar for example, there is only one welfare officer for all the jails.” That’s one officer for the nine central jails at Tihar, which house a total of 15,161 inmates as of 2017. “Similarly with law officers,” Verma said. “Recruitment of these officers is still pending.”
8. Open jails may not be a bad idea
Open prisons are prisons without bars. The inmates stay with their families and earn their livelihoods. This is considered a humane penal system, according to Reformative Theory Law, which argues that the emphasis of punishment should be reform.
Open prisons are prisons without bars.
“Rajasthan has experimented successfully with open jails,” Verma pointed out. “The Rajasthan Legal Service Authority has said that it’s a successful initiative. The inmates serve their sentence and maintain their family lives too. Tihar has semi-open jail. Other states should start open prisons.”
9. Basic infrastructure is terrible
“In some jails, even basic facilities like soap for washing is not provided,” Verma said. “Jails need to upgrade their infrastructure. There is overcrowding. There need to be bigger prisons. There should be more space. There also is a vacancy for a lot of posts that need to be filled. Be it welfare or law officers, recruitments need to be made.”
10. Parole can take years to process
“Sometimes inmates’ applications for parole are not processed on time,” Verma said. “Parole application should not legally take more than 21 days. But in some cases, it was found that the application wasn’t processed for two to three years.”
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