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Five-star jails of India

Five-star jails of India

Author: Joginder Singh
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: April, 23, 2007

In a raid on Meerut Jail led by the DIG of Agra Jail to recover and seize cell phones and other unauthorised and prohibited items, there was a fight between the jail police and inmates of the high-security prison. It left six police officials and four inmates injured.

The raiding DIG said, "It could not have happened without the connivance of jail officials. We had special instructions from the home department as Meerut Jail is known for its lawlessness. But we were shocked when a thou-sand-strong mob attacked us with sticks and stones. We were trapped and could only escape after we charged towards the gate."

The prisoners snatched away all the mobile phones and contra-band recovered during the check that was ordered at the instance of the State Government. The DIG has accused the superintendent of Meerut Jail of "inciting the jail inmates to attack us so that we could not find prohibited articles in the jail".

On the other hand, the jail superintendent has accused the DIG of demanding illegal gratification. Some staff has been suspended. The other form of corruption reported from the Meerut Jail included unauthorised sale of items at exorbitant prices. Cigarettes were being sold for Rs 20 per stick. It cost Rs 500 for a meal of choice. A local call could be made for Rs 20, an STD call cost Rs 100. The Meerut Jail, built to house 700 inmates, now has 1,850 prisoners.

A former Uttar Pradesh Minister, serving his sentence in Lucknow Jail for the murder of his mistress Madhumita Shukla, freely hosted a wedding anniversary bash for a co-accused in the murder case inside the jail premises. A sitting Minister when asked replied, "No one is born a criminal and the Samajwadi Party believes in transformation of criminals. You can't stop anyone from celebrating an occasion concerning him, his family or near and dear ones - within the premises of the jail. As per my knowledge, there was no violation of the jail manual."

In 2004, three accused involved in the assassination of Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh escaped scandalously from the Burail Jail in Chandigarh. Inspection of the jail showed that the high profile prisoners were not only leading a luxurious life, but they had also enclosed their cells in a way that their activities inside could not be kept under vigil. Once the cell was turned into a virtual fortress, the prisoners dug a tunnel to escape.

The escape of terrorists involved in one of the most high-profile assassinations could not have materialised simply through a nexus between corrupt jail staffers and the prisoners. Vast sums of money as well as a pattern of internal and external intimidation was necessary to create the conditions for the eventual breakout and a significant network of support was essential to make sure that the fugitives could evade the police system once they were out.

The escape of Phoolan Devi's killers from high security Tihar Jail and other similar escapes of prisoners highlight the ineptitude and complicity of jail staff. Tihar Jail is actually a complex of seven prisons, having a capacity of 4,000 prisoners. But actually there are more than 12,000 prisoners lodged there. Regrettably, there is no fixed rule as to how many prisoners can be lodged in a particular jail.

The following is the existing jail system. There are two categories of jails - district jails normally built for 400 prisoners each and central jails for 750 each. The jail staff members are not from the police and have their own distinct hierarchy. There are different categories of under-trial prisoners depending upon their education and social status. Courts have directed jails to do away with the colonial, vintage classification of under-trial prisoners into Class I, II and III, based on their socio-economic status, but Government continues to stick to the old practice.

Selected prisoners are used for the internal management of jails - to make up for manpower shortage - as well as administrative work. The convict- supervisors become a link between the prisoners and jail officials. They are given an incentive for their work. Any wrong placement or selection can lead to the escape of prisoners or other crimes going unchecked inside the jails.

The Indira Gandhi Government had set up a high-powered panel in 1980 to propose prison reforms. The apparent cause was Mrs Gandhi's first-hand experience of the conditions in Tihar where she was lodged in 1978. Mrs Gandhi appointed the Justice AN Mulla Committee to review the national jail system even though jail is a State Government subject.

The Mulla Committee, 1983, recommended that the Constitution be amended to shift the subject of prisons from the State List to the Concurrent List. That never happened. The Centre at present has no say in the matter of jails except when they are in Union Territories where, again, jails are far from being models. The result is that jails continue to be governed by an outdated law enacted by the British in 1894. The position is that the jail conditions vary greatly from one State to another or even from prison to prison. There is no national policy on prisons.

A sensible recommendation of the Mulla Committee was to classify prisons into special security, maximum, medium and minimum security prisons. Such a classification can serve as a safeguard against jailbreaks and jail riots.

Much before sting operations became a norm with the media, a hard-hitting report had shown that in the Tihar Jail, officials mixed with notorious inmates like Charles Sobraj who ran an extensive drug and liquor racket with impunity. This led to a secret visit of the then Home Minister Giani Zail Singh to Tihar Jail. He was stunned to see a drunken prisoner offering him a bottle of liquor. A mortified Government finally suspended two jail officials.

Criminalisation of politics has produced a strange phenomenon. Criminals have contested elections from behind the bars and some of them have won. Given such topsy-turvy world of politics, prison officials are often either unmindful of the crimes being committed regularly inside the prisons, or sometimes they are the ones to provide prisoners with mobile phones, drugs and food. These jail staffers also organise kavi sammelans and mushairas and help prisoners run extortion rackets and criminal gangs from inside the jails. A prison for some prisoners has become a home away from home.

The next issue is that of under-trials. According to the statistics compiled by the Custodial Justice Cell of the National Human Rights Commission, 225,817 of 304,893 or 74.06 per cent of the total prison population in the country comprises those awaiting trial. The total jail capacity in India is 232,412 prisoners, which makes the total prison population 31 per cent higher than capacity, clearly emphasising the urgent need for a speedier justice mechanism.

Only when politicians go to jail do they talk about reforming the jail system. They forget the issue the moment they are out. We must be clear as to what kind of confinement or jail system we want. The time to make a beginning is now before things get worse. There must be a Central law to be followed as a model by all States.


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