The closed nature of penal system makes it easier for any kind of abuse to go unnoticed and unattended. Therefore, it becomes extremely important to hold the functionaries of prison accountable for their actions. To this end, multiple oversight mechanisms have been instituted in India either by a legislation or regulation to ensure that the prison conditions are monitored regularly and the rights of prisoners are upheld.
Rule 83.1 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners 2015 (Nelson Mandela Rules), which calls for a ‘twofold system for regular inspections of prisons and penal services: (a) Internal or administrative inspections conducted by the central prison administration; (b) External inspections conducted by a body independent of the prison administration, which may include competent international or regional bodies. In both cases, the objective of the inspections shall be to ensure that prisons are managed in accordance with existing laws, regulations, policies and procedures, with a view to bringing about the objectives of penal and corrections services, and that the rights of prisoners are protected.’
A. Strengthening Prison Oversight Mechanisms
Prison Visiting System is an external prison oversight mechanism that calls for regular inspections in prison. As long back as 1894, the government accepted by way of Section 59(25) in the Prison Act that a system of visitors both from civil society and government in prisons would be of value to the management and monitoring of prisons. Thus, making it mandatory to have a prison visiting system at place. It involves visitors to inspect the prison periodically and report to the government.
Every state in India has its own set of rules to regulate prisons. These rules require all the jails to have official and non-official visitors. Official visitors are district officials, judicial members, member of legislative assemblies and often State Human Rights Commissions. Non-Official visitors are reputed local people. Together, they form a Board of Visitors which is required to inspect prisons, meet and discuss solutions to the problems related to administration of prison and welfare of prisoners. This balances the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ and strives to keep the monitoring non-partisan. CHRI believes it is a one-point solution to preventing violations of rights, improving conditions and strengthening complaints redressal.
However, the mechanism has since then become mostly defunct because of lack of intent and transparency despite constant recognition by Indian courts. We challenge the status quo to revive the system by developing evidence-led studies and promote the implementation of statutory standards.
The Supreme Court in the Re Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons (WP 406 of 2013) had also directed vide its order dated 15 September, 2017 that “The constitution of a Board of Visitors which includes non-official visitors is of considerable importance so that eminent members of society can participate in initiating reforms in prisons and in the rehabilitation of prisoners. Merely changing the nomenclature of prisons to ‘Correction Homes’ will not resolve the problem. Some proactive steps are required to be taken by eminent members of society who should be included in the Board of Visitors. The State Governments are directed to constitute an appropriate Board of Visitors in terms of Chapter XXIX of the Model Prison Manual indicating their duties and responsibilities. This exercise should be completed by 30th November, 2017.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs had also issued an advisory to States/UTs dated 18th February 2011, titled ‘Advisory for appointment and working of Non-Official Visitors for Prisons’. It emphasised on the need to sensitise and train Non-Official Visitors about their duties, role and responsibilities. It further suggested that the sensitization and training programmes must be organized for Non-Official Visitors by the prison headquarters in association with the Training Institutes like ICA, Chandigarh, TISS Mumbai, APCA Vellore, RICA West Bengal and RICAs in other States. It also suggested that a workshop of NOVs from across the State should be organized once a year by the State prison training institute for sharing their experiences/ learning and documentation of good practices models.
A transparent, open and accessible prison system is more likely to be accountable and at the same time more equipped in maintaining human rights standards. Thus, in light of recent developments and incidents reported, there is a dire need to strengthen the functioning of BOVs across prisons in India. Training on prison oversight mechanisms, has been included by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) in Unit 14 of the ‘Training Manual of Basic Course for Prison Officers 2018’. However, in recent years, there have been very few, if any, such trainings organised across the country.
We have worked closely with the State Human Rights Commissions and Prison Departments to build the confidence, knowledge and expertise of visitors by way of regular trainings. We work with other civil society groups to raise awareness about the mechanism and the negative impact of its disuse. We prepare RTI based watch reports to monitor the functioning of the BOVs across India. Through our national report 'Looking into the Haze: A Study on Prison Monitoring in India' published in 2016 we highlighted the dismal functioning of BOVs in India.
Nelson Mandela said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens by its lowest ones.” And yet, very rarely does one step inside a prison or witness what really happens behind the four seemingly impermeable walls of a prison.
We have over the last two decades conducted studies in Andhra Pradesh (2006), Maharashtra (2010) (sub-jails), Karnataka (2010), Chhattisgarh and Odisha (2010). We are presently conducting comprehensive research in Haryana, Punjab and Karnataka under the aegis of the State Legal Services Authority.
The studies look into a number of aspects of prisons and prisoners’ lives, viz. administration and infrastructure, prison regime, health and medical facilities, visitation rights and facilities, access to information, access to legal aid in prisons, vocational training and prison labour, prison oversight, and provisions for vulnerable categories of prisoners (women prisoners and their children, the mentally ill and foreign national prisoners). The studies comprise analysis of data as well as of observations made during prison visits and interactions with prison officers and prisoners. The studies, conducted on behalf of the State Legal Services Authorities, aim to improve prison conditions by identifying policy and implementation gaps and recommending pragmatic solutions to ensure minimum standards in prisons. These studies will be released soon.