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India’s Supreme Court Orders Prison and Jail Reforms

The United States is not the only nation that has serious problems with the operation of its jails and prisons. Recently, an amicus curiae made a number of recommendations in a case being considered by the Supreme Court of India, noting poor conditions in Indian prisons. Gaurav Agrawal, who was appointed by the Supreme Court, submitted his recommendations in a writ petition filed in 2013 by a former chief justice of the Court, R.C. Lahoti.

In response, Justices Madan B. Lokur and R.K. Agrawal issued a series of directives to address concerns raised in the petition, and acknowledged that although problems with Indian prisons and jails had been cited frequently over the past 35 years, progress has been slow. “Unfortunately, even though Article 21 of the Constitution requires a life of dignity for all persons, little appears to have changed on the ground as far as prisoners are concerned and we are once again required to deal with issues relating to prisons in the country and their reform,” the Justices wrote.

In previous decisions, the Supreme Court had “pointed out the double handicap that prisoners face; the first being that most prisoners belong to the weaker sections of society and the second being that since they are confined in a walled-off world their voices are inaudible.”

On February 5, 2016, in response to the writ petition, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that outlined a number of reforms, declaring that “prisoners, like all human beings, deserve to be treated with dignity.”

Specifically, the Court said review committees for undertrial (pretrial) detainees should meet every quarter, beginning in March 2016, to review issues “so that [they] are released at the earliest [opportunity] and those who cannot furnish bail bonds due to their poverty are not subjected to incarceration only for that reason.” Further, each state must ensure that “an adequate number of competent lawyers are empanelled to assist undertrial prisoners and convicts, particularly the poor and indigent, and that legal aid for the poor does not become poor legal aid.” The Court also stated that corrections officials “should ensure that there is proper and effective utilization of available funds so that the living conditions of the prisoners is commensurate with human dignity. This also includes the issue of their health, hygiene, food, clothing, rehabilitation, etc.” Lastly, the Ministry of Home Affairs was directed to “conduct an annual review of the implementation of the Model Prison Manual 2016.”

Amicus curiae Agrawal noted there are limited statistics for overcrowding in India’s prison system, but available data indicates that not only are facilities crowded, they are also deteriorating due to lack of proper maintenance. He wrote that some of the worst institutions are at 200% of capacity. Additionally, like jails in the United States, many prisoners suffer from a variety of untreated mental health conditions and receive little to no professional medical care. In April 2016, Agrawal made recommendations which included easier access to attorneys and advocates, better intake procedures, more visitation, participation by non-governmental organizations in mental health treatment, increased jail inspections by monitors, and greater use of bail and furloughs.

The Supreme Court stated it would consider other issues, including “unnatural deaths in jails, inadequacy of staff and training of staff” at a future hearing. See: Writ Petition (Civil) re Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, Supreme Court of India, No. 406/2013 (Feb. 5, 2016).

It is apparent from the Court’s ruling that conditions in Indian prisons and jails are substandard, and prisoners receive much worse treatment than those in the U.S. – though it is also clear the two countries share many of the same problems with respect to their criminal justice systems. It should be noted, however, that India confines a much smaller percentage of its population, per capita, than the United States, which is the world leader in terms of incarceration.

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Related legal case

Writ Petition (Civil) re Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons