" The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons"
Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1821-1881
The Indian criminal justice system seems to be dealing with two broad categories of people: those who live above the law and those who are absolutely crushed by it. Prisoners are one of the weakest constituencies in the society. They have no voting rights, have very limited access to the outside world, and are under the complete control of the prison authority. They cannot speak with the press, write letters or speak with their families without the permission and/or censorship by the prison department. In India, majority of these voiceless people remain in prison pending trial or conviction. Most recent statistics reveal that over 65% of the prisoners are under-trials and they may continue to be held in overcrowded prisons for years. The occupancy in prisons exceeds by 41.4% over and above its sanctioned capacity. A huge majority of these under-trial prisoners are poor. They are denied bail for want of monetary security. And trials take years. Often, they have no lawyers, live in pathetic conditions, do not have access to adequate medical care, and are likely to be tortured or exploited. Many times, the legal aid lawyers and prison officials are also unaware of the existing legal standards. The system fails the prisoners at every turn and often times the agencies blame each other for non-performance and unaccountability.
The Prison Reform Programme is focused on increasing transparency of a traditionally closed system and exposing malpractice. The programme aims to improve prison conditions, reform prison management, enhance accountability and foster an attitude of cooperation between the various agencies of the criminal justice system in place of the prevailing indifference and discrimination. It seeks to achieve its goals through research, legal analysis and advice, advocacy, capacity building, network building and conference facilitation. Over the years, we have worked in different parts of the country including Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, and West Bengal. A major area of our work is focused on highlighting failures of the legal system that result in terrible overcrowding and unconscionably long pre-trial detention and prison overstays, and engaging in interventions to ease this. Another area of concentration is aimed at reviving the prison oversight systems that have completely failed. We believe that attention to these areas will bring improvements to the administration of prisons as well as have a knock on effect on the administration of justice overall.