The urgent need for reform in India’s prison system - Hindustan Times
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The urgent need for reform in India’s prison system

ByVijay Raghavan and Maja Daruwala
Sep 27, 2021 04:23 PM IST

Treating the cadre that works within the prison system with the respect and consideration that every agency of the state receives is imperative. Innovative ideas for reform are not possible if the officers are parachuted in and out of a system that, in fact, needs years of training and on-the-ground experience.

Home minister Amit Shah, while addressing the 51st Foundation Day of the Bureau of Police Research and Development — a research and policy think-tank under the ministry of home affairs — highlighted the need to overhaul India’s criminal justice system.

Prisoners, 70% of whom are people held inside as undertrials while the system grinds on, are the victims. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Prisoners, 70% of whom are people held inside as undertrials while the system grinds on, are the victims. (Shutterstock)

A good place to start this shift is prisons, as a lot is wrong with the prison system. Overcrowding — from the national average of 114% occupancy to five times that in many states; poor living conditions; high numbers of undertrials; irregular access to legal counsel — all make prison time a traumatic experience.

Various stakeholders within the system contribute to these appalling conditions, from the judiciary to the police, along with failings within the administration — low budgets, short-staffing, dilapidated infrastructure and heavy workloads. Lawyers also point to laws such as the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO), Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which make release on bail near impossible.

Prisoners, 70% of whom are people held inside as undertrials while the system grinds on, are the victims.

From the time that the Justice Mulla Committee recommended reform of the prison system in 1983, many state committees, including Maharashtra’s Justice Radhakrishnan Committee, have highlighted an impediment to prison reform: The practice of personnel from the Indian Police Service (IPS) being appointed as heads of prison departments.

The reason: IPS officers being made the heads of prisons or at lower levels is often considered outside the realm of mainstream policing — a side-posting of sorts. This can make the officers complacent as they wait for their transition back to “mainstream policing”. This does not help an already understaffed police system. Nationally, vacancies stand at 30% with the officer-to-constable ratios only worsening and mid-level posts being badly affected.

There is something wrong with allowing a service that is intended for the specific purpose of securing public safety — the police — to be drafted into prison administration. Moreover, police training and skill sets are immersed in cultures of security and investigation, while modern prison administration systems are based on creating opportunities for corrections and rehabilitation. Simply put: The former aims to put people behind bars, while the latter should be aiming to ensure that prisoners, once in the system, emerge as better people when their terms are done.

The Uttarakhand High Court reiterated this in a recent case, striking down the appointment of police officers as prison superintendents. This is welcome, as many workers within the prison system are overlooked for these top positions despite their special training and experience in prison administration work.

This leads to a lack of motivation, corruption, and low-quality job skills with little to no avenues for training, promotion, and self-realisation, and where living and working conditions are stifling.

However, the Model Prison 2016 rules are now in circulation with state governments having committed to their implementation. These rules emphasise the ethos of prisons being reformative rather than retributive.

The Justice Radhakrishnan Committee pointed out that “it is important that prison management be seen from the reformation perspective, and hence, the recruitment be seen not as a cadre for controlling prisoners but for rehabilitation of prisoners.”

It further added that the solution lies in improving working conditions and salaries, organising refresher courses and study tours, increasing promotion avenues, and creating additional posts in the prison departments at senior levels such as deputy inspector general or DIG (Law), DIG (Welfare and Rehabilitation), Additional (Addl) IG (Prisons), and induction into the Indian Administrative Services after serving as Addl IG (Prisons).

Treating the cadre that works within the prison system with the respect and consideration that every agency of the state receives is imperative. Innovative ideas for reform are not possible if the officers are parachuted in and out of a system that, in fact, needs years of training and on-the-ground experience.

Vijay Raghavan is professor, Centre for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), and project director, Prayas, a field action project of TISS. Maja Daruwala is chief editor, India Justice Report

The views expressed are personal

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