How rigorous is rigorous imprisonment?
Two murder convicts sentenced to rigorous imprisonment were recently found loitering in Tihar jail by an inspecting Judge who passed critical comments on lax rules in prisons.
This has triggered a debate whether rigorous imprisonment (RI) really means the rigours of prison like hard labour.
A look at different jail manuals in the country shows that 99% of the convicts being awarded RI may actually be undergoing simple imprisonment in reality.
Sentenced to undergo RI in Delhi's Tihar jail, an ex-IPS officer looks after the library while another convict, also undergoing RI, dishes out legal aid.
Many of those convicted to undergo rigorous imprisonment in various other prisons may actually be serving just simple imprisonment as the jails do not have enough work for the convicts.
"Only 10% of our rigorous imprisonment prisoners get work and rest sit idle as there is no work. Prison officials decide the type of work to be given. Work is allocated to a prisoner keeping in mind the best that can be got out of the prisoner," K V Reddy, president All India Prison Officers Association and deputy superintendent of Jails, Andhra Pradesh said.
"The word RI needs refinement. Since it is not clearly defined anywhere we end up following the simple rule that a RI prisoner must work. A prisoner sentenced to simple imprisonment has a choice but an RI sentenced prisoner has none," Neeraj Kumar, DG Tihar Prisons said.
"Former IPS officer R K Sharma, and Santosh Singh, a lawyer, are both murder convicted who got RI. Both are given work inside the prisons. Sharma manages the library and Singh gives legal aid to other prisoners," Sunil Gupta spokesperson, Tihar Prisons said.
Justice R S Sodhi, a retired Delhi High Court judge, cautioned, "This vagueness about RI can lead to its misuse. The type of treatment, the type of work, to be meted out to an RI sentenced prisoner will depend on the whims and fancies of the jail superintendents. And it is absolutely true they can be given very light jobs despite convicted and sentenced to RI."
"Rigorous imprisonment, that is, with hard labour. This is what Section 53 of the Indian Penal Code says about RI," Dr Surat Singh, a Supreme Court advocate, said.
"But then hard labour is not well defined. In majority of the criminal cases RI sentencing is pronounced and the word itself connotes physical labour," he said.
RI sentence is pronounced based on the gravity of offence of the accused criminal.
"If two people have committed murder then one might be eligible for getting a simple imprisonment and another may not. It will depend on how brutal the murder was," Justice (retired) B A Khan of Delhi High Court said.
"Scanning the pages of the jail manuals of different jails across the country, the Prisons Act 1894 and the Code of Criminal Procedure for a definition of 'rigorous imprisonment' one will end up with an unclear picture of RI," Dr Singh said.
Aditya Bandhopadyay, a lawyer and human Rights activist, said, "In absence of clear definition of what RI entails which basically means hardened criminals who should be undergoing stringent punishment, end up having a picnic in jails at taxpayers expenses."
Agreeing to the fact that it can be misused, Justice Khan said, "If the definition of RI is absent in jail manuals then it should be immediately be brought to the notice of the court. Government's view point should be taken and misuse be told and parameters should be laid down immediately. "The same was done with the term 'life imprisonment' and that is why there is no confusion about it now."
The Jail Manual of Asia's largest Prison, Tihar too has no rules and regulations laid down related to RI sentenced prisoner.
Former Chief Justice of India J S Verma said, "We pronounce RI based on whatever is there in the legislation. RI must be physical labour."
Advocate S S Mishra, a lawyer with the Supreme Court said, RI is not defined in jail manual nor explicitly defined in the study books. "And hence it depends on the discretion of the jail authority and this discretionary power can be misused.
This word was introduced by Britishers.
An RI sentenced prisoner in colonial days had to break stones or was made to do road construction work. But today nothing of that sort happens."