December 4, 2021
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Protecting the Jailbird

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Rights of Prisoners in India

Good morning. You might be surprised to hear this but apparently, prison is not as fun as Elvis Presley had us think it is in Jailhouse Rock. No prison warden is going to throw a party and no band is going to magically come together to celebrate the spirit of it all. In reality, the prison system in most countries is rather grim. So much so that in a lot of cases, questioning whether the punishments actually fit the crimes is one that bears quite the burden.

Human rights violations in prisons are not a unique sight. With the dominance of the general “black and white” approach to crime and punishment, it’s easy to forget that prisoners, at the end of the day, are still human. Therefore, despite being imprisoned, prisoners do absolutely have real rights that no warden or official can take away.

The first set of rights are your basic fundamental rights. These are the rights that you have by virtue of simply being born a human. Under the Constitution of India, Articles 14, 19 and 21 are really the ones that get exclusively mentioned when prisoner’s rights are brought up.

  • Article 14 talks about “equality before law”. This talks about how the law applies to all persons without discriminating on the basis of “religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”.
  • Article 19, under normal circumstances, ensures six freedoms to citizens. For prisoners, the most relevant freedom under it is an individual’s freedom of speech and expression. This means that one is allowed to “express their opinions freely” through whatever medium they prefer without any fear of repercussions.
  • Article 21 ensures an individual’s right to life and personal liberty “except according to a procedure established by law.”

Whenever the right to life is brought up, you must remember that this doesn’t just mean staying alive. It generally covers the aspect of living with dignity and nowadays, privacy plays a major role in that. Thus, a prisoner also has the right to privacy. Even during an active investigation, an individual’s privacy needs to be safeguarded and if it is not, the individual can move the courts for the same.

A prisoner’s right to privacy is also extended to their spouse. As per the Rahmath Nisha v. Additional Director General of Prisoner and Others (2019) case, it is “natural” for emotions to find “physical expression” on meeting one’s spouse. Therefore, the meeting of a prisoner and their partner or spouse should be “unmonitored”. Along with their spouses, a prisoner has the right to meet their friends too, but privacy doesn’t really have much to do with this.

A prisoner’s right to live with dignity is also brought up when the topic of bar fetters and solitary confinement pops up. According to the Supreme Court, in the Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration (1979) case, the imposition of solitary confinement must only be made in “exceptional cases”. As in, when a prisoner is particularly violent or dangerous to those around them. In any other case, it does become a serious violation of human rights given its serious impact on one’s mental wellbeing.

In that same case, the apex court also said that “keeping prisoners in bar fetters day and night reduces them to the level of an animal”. It also severely impacts their mental health. Both this and solitary confinement are “dehumanising” and “derogatory” in nature, which makes them “against the spirit of the Constitution”. So, under Article 21, prisoners are safeguarded from both these practices.

This brings us to a prisoner’s rights against inhuman treatment, especially in cases where restraining an individual is required. On several occasions, the Supreme Court has even directed state and prison officials to regulate the same. When it comes to instruments of restraint, the use of handcuffs, chains, straitjackets and irons are strictly prohibited. Other instruments of restraint may be used only “under specific circumstances”.

  • Restraints can be used for precaution “against escape” when a prisoner is being transferred from the prison to either a court or an administrative body.
  • Restraints can be used on prisoners if a medical professional permits them on medical grounds.
  • Restraints can also be used in cases where preventing a prisoner from self-harm or destroying things around them become difficult. But this too shall be done after consulting a medical professional.

In fact, a prisoner’s right to health and medical treatment is taken very seriously. Because of Article 21, the State is obligated to safeguard an individual’s life, imprisoned or not. Every doctor in a government hospital is obligated to extend medical treatment to preserve life. But what’s interesting is that the Gujarat High Court, in a suo moto (on its own motion) writ, provided guidelines regarding the same to the Central government. These guidelines call for every District and Central jail to be equipped with an Intensive Coronary Care Unit (ICCU), a pathology lab, doctors, an adequate number of nurses and updated medical equipment.

Another important right of prisoners’ is their right to education. Not only is a prisoner entitled to education while in custody, but the education or training imparted to them must be relevant. In the Mohammad Giasuddin v. State of AP (1977) case, the Supreme Court directed the state to make sure that the work given to inmates must not be “monotonous, mechanical, intellectual or like type mixed with a title manual labour”. They are also entitled to reasonable compensation for the work they have done.

The court also said that women prisoners are entitled to learn basic skills like tailoring, doll-making and embroidery. A well-educated prisoner is entitled to be offered mentally and/or manually productive work to keep them occupied. And, that all prisoners are entitled to receive books and magazines for “the improvement of [their] minds”.

Finally, the Supreme Court has also, on several occasions, stated that a prisoner has the right to publication. This means that no authority can prevent the publication of any book or piece written by a prisoner as it would be a violation of one’s freedom of speech and expression. During the George Fernandes v. State of Maharashtra (1963) case, the court even pointed out that “it is well known that books of education and universal praise have been written in prison cells.”

Prisoners have a host of rights as per the law but more often than not, they are easy to ignore. Just because something might be easy to overlook doesn’t make it okay to do so. A human being, once imprisoned, does not cease to be a human. Prisoner rights are human rights and safeguarding them is literally one of the basic duties of a state. Don’t let the extreme binary in the zeitgeist tell you otherwise.