Seminar on beyond prison walls - conversation on prisoners' rights

Tihar Prisons in collaboration with the Bureau of Police Research and Development, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Delhi School of Social Work, University of Delhi organised a one-day seminar on 23 September 2017 at NDMC Convention Centre, Sansad Marg, New Delhi to discuss issues concerning the prison system and prisoners’ rights.

The event ‘Beyond Prison Walls - Conversation on Prisoners’ Rights’ was envisioned as a space to build relationships at the intersection of criminal justice between people behind bars and those who govern the system.

Mr. Sudhir Yadav, Director General, Department of Prisons, NCT of Delhi, said “We hope that through the seminar we have been able to highlight the challenges faced by prisoners. Our endeavour in Tihar jail has been to reform, rehabilitate and reintegrate the prisoners. Our aim has been to treat each inmate with dignity and respect. We hope that when they go back to society, they are able to give back."

Mr. Sanjoy Hazarika, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) Director, said at the inaugural session, “The aim of the seminar is to focus on the socio-economic impacts of detention and sensitising functionaries to pledge against injustice. The seminar seeks to raise public consciousness on issues plaguing the system and encouraging dialogue on pre-trial and post-release concerns.”

Dr. Meeran C. Borwankar, Director General, Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D), claimed that; Prisoners have the same human rights as citizens and prison administration has to be alive to this fact. Open and transparent prison administration supported by civil society leads to reformation and rehabilitation of prisoner."

Dr. Neera Agnimitra, Professor and Head, Department of Social Work, said, “the domain of correctional social work is ever expanding in the contemporary context. The judiciary has time and again asserted the imperativeness of the role of social workers, especially in the prison setting. The Department of Social Work, University of Delhi, hopes that this seminar shall foster an extensive engagement of the relevant spectrum of stakeholders to create a meaningful discourse in the field of prisoners’ rights and prison reforms.”

The inaugural session saw speeches by our chief guest—Dr. Justice B.S. Chauhan, Chairman, Law Commission of India, who stressed that “after being convicted, a person does not cease to be a citizen of India. He still has rights”. Speaking on bail, he said that the privilege of the rich in criminal procedure must be ended, particularly in light of Article 21 (life and liberty) and Article 14 (non-discrimination) within the Indian Constitution.

Our second chief guest, Mr. Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, began by welcoming the inmates present, addressing them as dignitaries, and spoke of the importance of dignity for all individuals. He said he would take the recommendations of this event forward. He also congratulated CHRI and its work in this area, which he became acquainted with as a journalist and as a social activist.

The first-half of the day witnessed a panel discussion on existing bail provisions and practice; the amendments proposed by the Law Commission recently and the challenges in implementation of the provisions and the way ahead. Undertrials constitute more than two-third of the prison population in the country defying the principle of ‘Bail is the rule, Jail an exception’

“There have been detailed conversations on the need for risk assessment, its time we start talking about benefits to society by granting bail,” said a Tihar inmate in the second half of the seminar, inmates interacted with authorities, civil society and media. This helped in providing a platform for prison inmates to voice their concerns in their own words; for long, many have spoken for them.

Based on preliminary discussions with inmates, three main issues were identified. These are -
“Kya israat ki subah hogi” – First Day in Prison
The first day in prison is probably the most challenging for most inmates. The sense of being lost, alone and without hope dominates. The session tried to address questions like - What would give them comfort? What safeguards are guaranteed to them? What kind of psychological and emotional condition are they at this stage? 

“Hamara sangharsh yahan bhi” – Issues Concerning Women and Children inside Prisons.
Women inmates are acutely vulnerable. The weak socio - economic court. Often without the support from their families. The conditions of women impact their life behind bars as well. Limited education and forced dependency makes it even more difficult for them to undergo a trial, deal with lawyers, and understand what happens in court. This requires special considerations regarding their mental health needs. 

“Ekdusra mauka” – Lack of Opportunities After Release and Addressing Social Stigma
Having spent crucial years of their life in prison, life post-release can be very challenging. The mental and physical impacts of incarceration and the social stigma attached ensures that their ‘punishment’ goes beyond prison bars.
The session dealt with issues like- What would give them the confidence to face the challenges post release- prison addressing issues of social reintegration? Would society be ready to accept them? How can civil society help?

Justice Madan B.Lokur, Judge, Supreme Court, said when he first visited Tihar jail in 1993-94, the condition of Tihar was "very bad." "I have visited it again twice, and I found lots of improvements."

He highlighted the importance of video conferencing, saying that it could be used more effectively by connecting prisons with courts, legal services authorities and other agencies of the criminal justice system. "All the jails in India should have video-conferencing facilities.There are about 1,400 jails and courts are much more in number. We are trying to install video conferencing units in all jails," he said.

The second point, he raised, was of legal aid anomalies. He stressed on "quality legal aid" and said that the need for regular interaction between inmates and lawyers is extremely important."
He also raised the matter of undertrial review committee, which he said, needs to conduct meetings every month and he hoped that it would lessen the burden on the jails, which are really overcrowded.

The seminar had representation from the various agencies of the criminal justice system, including judicial officers, lawyers, prosecutors, government and police officials, media and legal aid functionaries.  

Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi Mr.Manish Sisodia makes a point at the seminar on “Beyond Prison Walls Conversation on Prisoners’ Rights’, as CHRI Director Mr.Sanjoy Hazarika, Director General of Prisons, NCT Mr. Sudhir Yadav, Chairman Law Commission of India, Dr. Justice B.S. Chauhan and Head of Department, Delhi School of Social Work, Dr. Neera Agnimitra, watch.

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