Tracking devices, separate transgender cells: Centre outlines new prison rules

By, New Delhi
May 25, 2023 02:14 PM IST

The provisions under the act have been sent to states for pointers on how to overhaul India’s prison management and combat some persistent problems.

Electronic tracking devices for convicts on parole, separate zones for transgender prisoners and prison terms for those convicted of using or supplying cellphones to inmates are part of new provisions in the Union government’s Model Prison Act, 2023, which it sent to states this month for pointers on how to overhaul India’s prison management and combat some persistent problems.

Delhi's Tihar prison complex (File Photo/PTI) PREMIUM
Delhi's Tihar prison complex (File Photo/PTI)

The communication comes at a time when there have been high profile cases of killings and gang-wars within some of India’s prominent prisons, where notorious inmates often also continue to run their criminal syndicates. Security infrastructure in high security wards was also recently in focus when gangster Sunil Baliyan, also known as Tillu Tajpuriya, was stabbed to death by other inmates who had managed to break open grilles of their cell.

Union home secretary Ajay Bhalla, in a letter addressed to chief secretaries of all states, shared the document citing the need to update regulations that are currently determined by “two pre-Independence era” laws, the Prisons Act of 1894 and the Prisoners Act of 1900.

“With the passage of time and evolution of the ideology of reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners, many of the provisions of these colonial acts have become outdated and obsolete,” Bhalla wrote, citing a need for a more “progressive and robust” law in sync with modern day needs and correctional ideology.

To be sure, how prisons are run and the rules and laws related to them are exclusively in a state’s domain in the Constitution. But the Union government often lays down model laws which states can replicate either in entirety or partially and enact them as legislation.

Prison experts who spoke to HT said that while some provisions in the model law remedy existing loopholes, implementation and misuses will need to be monitored carefully.

The draft model prison act shows the importance of updating obsolete, colonial-era laws regulating India’s prisons so that technology can be effectively leveraged to ensure security, the safety of inmates under the protection of the state can be ensured, and a culture of bribery and corruption plaguing many prisons can be broken, thereby stopping hardened criminals from running their syndicates from behind bars.

One key provision in the model act is the use of electronic devices to track prisoners when they are let out on furlough or parole. Though ankle bracelet monitors are use in several countries for prisons who violate parole terms, no prison in India has adopted this provision till date.

In recent years, there have been several cases of prisoners not surrendering after their parole/furlough has ended. “Prisoners may be granted prison leave on the condition of their willingness to wear electronic tracking devices for monitoring their movement and activities,” according to point number 29 of the Act.

At least 600 prisoners, who were released on humanitarian grounds to decongest jails during the Covid-19 pandemic, are yet to surrender to Delhi jails. One of them, gangster Kapil Sangwan, never surrendered, fled the country, and continued to run his gang’s operation from abroad.

Sunil Gupta, former law officer of Delhi prisons said, getting tracking devices such as ankle bracelets used in some prisons abroad were a good idea but could be difficult to implement. “Having a GPS tracker attached to a person out on parole is cost effective and beneficial. We had considered this in our discussion in the past, but for the fear of privacy concerns raised by rights organisations, this was never implemented. If any prison manages to succeed in implementing this, it would be a good move,” he said.

Advocate Ajay Verma, former national convener of the National Forum for Prison Reforms, said the government should explore the idea such devices to all undertrials in non-heinous cases to ease the burden on jail. “Many big jails are packed to its capacity. The governments spend hundreds of crores in managing the jail. Undertrial prisoners will willingly wear such devices. Instead of just prisoners on parole, the government should give such devices to all undertrials,” he added.

Officials in Delhi’s Tihar jail (India’s biggest Central jail), who too have seen the model act, said the stringent guidelines mentioned to prevent use of cell phones would be a much-needed change.

The Delhi Prison Act, 2000, does not specifically mention cellphones, but says that if any jail officer is held supplying a “prohibited item”, the official, on conviction, could be sentenced to a maximum of six months or a maximum fine of 10,000 or both.

Under the new model law, mobile phones have been specifically mentioned and a prison term related to it can go up to three years or incur a fine of up to 25,000 or both if a person is convicted for supplying them to a prisoner.

Cellphone use in the prison has been particularly implicated in criminal conspiracies by inmates, such as the murder of Punjab singer Sidhu Moosewala or that of gangster Jitender Gogi, both of which were planned from inside Delhi and Punjab prisons.

In both cases, jailed gangsters used phones to talk to their accomplices while planning the murder.

In the case of Sukesh Chandrashekhar, a prisoner who pulled off a 200 crore heist from inside prison, a probe by police and central agencies showed senior jail officials had given him cellphones.

“Phones have become a menace. The jail term will act as a deterrent for corrupt offices. But there are pros and cons attached to this provision. There may be cases of prisoners trying to take revenge against a strict or honest jail officer by accusing him/her of supplying cell phones. How will the guilt be established? Will the prisoner’s statement be enough?” advocate Verma asked.

Other jail officials who reviewed the model law said provisions reiterating the ban on officials from having business dealings with prisoners or their relatives was important. The law also places a ban on any business dealing or activity inside the jail by any prisoner.

A former prisoner, who spent over 14 years in Delhi jails, said on condition of anonymity: “Corrupt jail officers take favours or bribes from relatives of prisoners. A prison is place where prisoners are always looking to curry favour for jail officers. It could be in the form of relatives sending money over mobile wallets to jail officers so that there is no direct connection with the prisoner. In the past there have been cases of infamous dons running jail canteen services or NGOs within the prison.”

The new Act also mentions a sentence plan that is to be prepared for each prisoner, which will help in the prisoner’s rehabilitation and social reintegration. “Some progressive correctional provisions include classification of prisoners, individualised sentence planning, provision for women prisoners, mental health and transgenders,” said Dr Upneet Lali, who works in the field of corrections and prison reforms.

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    Prawesh Lama covers crime, policing, and issues of security in Delhi. Raised in Darjeeling, educated in Mumbai, he also looks at special features on social welfare in the National Capital.

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