Supreme Court toughens stance on prison monitoring, seeks report from Home Ministry

Supreme Court toughens stance on prison monitoring, seeks report from Home Ministry

February 21, 2017

New Delhi

Pushing for stronger monitoring of prisons, the Supreme Court of India has once again emphasized the constitution of Boards of Visitors (BOVs) in jails and directed the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to submit a status report by March 31. 

This is at least the fifth time in 20 years that the highest court in the land has intervened on this issue. The BOV is designed to oversee prison conditions in India's country’s short-staffed, overcrowded and neglected jails. 

The Supreme Court’s direction followed a presentation by Amicus Curiae Gaurav Aggarwal, who pointed out that as of December 2014, less than one percent of jails in the country were actually being monitored as required by law. He placed this information before the court based on the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) report, “Looking into the Haze: A Study of Prison Monitoring in India”. 

At the last hearing on the case ‘Re - Inhuman Conditions In 1382 Prisons’, the Court directed the Ministry of Home Affairs to submit a status report by March 31 on “whether the Board of Visitors for jails is available and frequency of its visit and the steps taken to implement the recommendations given.” 

As per Section 59(25) of the Prisons Act of 1894, every state is mandated to lay down rules for the “appointment and guidance of visitors of prisons” in their respective prison manuals. The law lays down that every jail is required to constitute a BOV, comprising officials and elected representatives, along with eminent people from the local community known as Non-Official Visitors (NOVs). 

Members are expected to regularly visit jails – collectively or individually – and make recommendations to improve conditions. They are mandated not just to meet together periodically to review living conditions in prisons, treatment of prisoners, status of medical services but also follow up with prison staff and other authorities for solutions and implementation of policies. The intent of creating BOVs is to safeguard individual liberty and to guarantee fair trial rights, especially to the unrepresented and the unfortunate. 

Reflecting on the order, Mrinal Sharma, Project Officer (Prison Reforms Programme) at CHRI, said, “We appreciate the Supreme Court's this direction. Effective boards can really help the jail administration.  But without suitable, trained and active people in place, nothing will change on the ground. The Court should continue to monitor the appointment and work of these Boards in consonance with the 2011 MHA advisory.” 

In its effort to ensure more humane conditions in Jail, the three-judge bench of Justice Madan B Lokur, Justice Prafulla C Pant and Justice Deepak Gupta, directed “all the State Governments and Union Territories to take immediate steps to fill up the existing vacancies and initiate concrete steps in this regard on or before 31st March, 2017.” The Court has also ordered the Union of India through MHA to take urgent steps to prepare training manuals for various categories of staff and officers in jails. 

The Court took notice of the huge discrepancy among the states on the expenses incurred on inmates and therefore considered necessary to have the accounts audited to ascertain whether the money is being spent wisely and whether it is being utilized for the benefit of the prisoners or not. Accordingly, it directed the Ministry of Home Affairs to come out with a scheme for auditing these accounts with the assistance of the Comptroller and Auditor General at the earliest and, if possible, by 31st March, 2017. 

The progressive order follows evidence-based advocacy spearheaded by CHRI on the fact that only five of the 1,382 jails across India were monitored by BOVs, while just four states (Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Meghalaya and Tripura) had BOVs in all their prisons. 

While welcoming the Supreme Court directive, Maja Daruwala, Senior Advisor of CHRI, underlined that despite CHRI’s campaign over 15 years, state governments across the country had defied court rulings, “It is a mess. Everyone has stayed away from constituting effective working Boards of Visitors. Even when non-official visitors are sporadically appointed they are not chosen according to any set down criteria, they hardly know what they are to do, don’t meet as a Board, barely see their suggestions followed up and are themselves not monitored to see that they visit regularly.”

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