Supreme Court on 15th September 2017 delivered a judgment that may have ramifications upon the way prisons are managed in India. The judgment has dealt with the aspect of deaths in prisons and has suggested measures to make jails prisoner friendly. The sole critique of the judgment can be the fact that the slew of orders passed in the same matter before are yet to be implemented. It can only be hoped that this judgment will help move the long-pending prison reforms.

National Crime Records Bureau has recorded the natural and unnatural deaths in jails, but does not have a definition for what constitutes natural or unnatural. Suicide has been found to the cause of 71% of unnatural deaths in prisons.

The judgment has detailed several communications issued by National Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Home Affairs as well as several internationally accepted norms such as Nelson Mandela Rules. However, the stark reality has been noted by the Supreme Court itself as it has noted, "Suggestions and recommendations made by the Central Government do look good on paper but they do not seem to have any remedial effect."

Hope and much needed directions have been portrayed by Supreme Court as it has stated, "no State Government can shirk its duties and responsibilities for providing better facilities to prisoners. If a State Government is unable to do so, it should be far more circumspect in arresting and detaining persons, particularly under-trial prisoners who constitute the vast majority of those in judicial custody. The State Governments and the prosecution do not have to oppose every bail application nor do they have to ask for the remand of every suspect pending investigation. If the fundamental right to life and liberty postulated by Article 21 of the Constitution is to be given its true meaning, the Central Government and the State Governments must accept reality and not proceed on the basis that prisoners can be treated as chattel."

A suggestion of Performance Audit of jails saw traction with the Court. The fact that India's premier Tihar Jail has a shortage of doctors and other medical staff ranging from 18% to 62% made the Court shudder as to what could be the condition elsewhere.

After Abu Salem escaped death penalty due to India's deal with Portugal, Vijay Mallya is trying his best to avoid Indian jails. The nature of arguments by accused persons abroad is the shoddy nature of our jail. Implementation of this judgment has the potential to change all this. It is now for the Supreme Court to monitor the execution of its directions, or else this judgment too will become a nice piece of citation, without bringing any change on the ground.

 

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