Prisoners Rights: Some Landmark Judgements

The past decade has witnessed an increasing consciousness about the desirability of prison reforms, It is now being recognized that a reformative philosophy and a rehabilitative strategy must form a part of prison justice.

The ro!e of the Supreme Court in the past five years in introducing jail reforms has been commendable. Its quest for prison justice is probably a result of its attempt to revive liberty after extinguishing it in the Habeas Corpus case. In fact, the Supreme Court had commented in that case during the emergency that the treatment meted out to the detainees was almost mater-nal. The Supreme Court carried the ratio of the habeas Corpus case (ADM Jabalpur Vs. Shiv Kant Shukla) that Article 21 is the sole repository of life and liberty and during the emergency when liberty is suspended, due to the Presidential proclamation suspending Article 21, to the Prison conditions, and held in Bhanudas's case that a detainee during emergency could not agitate for better Jail Conditions and facilities.

Maneka Gandhi's case was a landmark in Indian jurisprudence. The Maneka principle was extended to prison conditions and particularly to the plight of under-trials. A series of news items appeared in "The Indian Express" about the continued incarceration of under-trials in Bihar Jails. Some of them were never produced before the courts. Some others had spent more time in jails as under-trials than the maximum penalty that could be imposed upon them if they were convicted of the offences they were charged with. The Supreme Court in the Writs of Habeas Corpus for under-trials stated that

"The information contained in these newspaper cuttings is most distressing and it is sufficient to stir the conscience and disturb the equanimity of any socially motivated lawyer or judge. Some of the undertrial prisoners whose names are given in the newspaper cuttings have been in jail for as many as 5, 7, or 9 years and a few of them for even more than 10 years without their trial being begun. What faith can these lost souls have in a judicial system which denies them a bare trial for so many years, and keeps them behind bars, not because they are guilty, but because they are too poor to afford bail and the courts have no time to try them. There can be little doubt after the dynamic interpretations placed by this court on Article 21 in Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India that a procedure which keeps such large number, of people behind bars without trial so long cannot possibly be regarded as reasonable, just or fair so as to be in conflict with the requirement of the Article."

It was with these observations that the Supreme Court directed the Bihar Government and the Patna High Court to furnish to the Supreme Court details of criminal cases pending in Bihar and their year wise breakup. The Supreme Court thereafter directed the release of such under-trials who were in detention for a unduly long period.

The Supreme Court again in a separate writ petition filed by Sunil Batra and Charles Sobharaj, two priso-ners in Delhi's Tihar jail, made an effort to humanize jail conditions. The question before the Court was: "Does a prison setting, ipso facto, outlaw the rule of law, lock out the judicial process from the jail gates and declare a long holiday for human rights of con-victs in confinement ? And if there is no total eclipse what luscent segment is open for judicial justice? Sunil Batra, sentenced to death had challenged his incarcera-tion in solitary confinement and Charles Sobhraj had challenged his confinement with bar-fetters.

The Supreme Court held that there is no total deprivation of a prisoner's rights of life and liberty. The "safe keeping" in jail custody is the limited juris-diction of the jailer. "To desort safe-keeping into a hidden opportunity to care the ward and to traumatize him is to betray the custodian of law, safe custody does not mean deprivations, violation, banishment from the lanter barguet of prison life and infliction's of tra-vails as if guardianship were best fulfilled by making the ward suffer near insanity."

The court held that Sunil Batra's mercy petition to the President/Governor had not been disposed off and Batra was not "under sentence of death." His solitary confinement was quashed. In the case of Charles Sobh-raJ, it was held that there was no arbitrary power to put an undertrial under bar-fetters. The discretion to impose "irons" is a quasi-judicial decision and a previous hearing is essential before putting a prisoners in fetters. The grounds for imposing fetters would be given to each victim in his language. It was further laid down that no "fetters" shall continue be-yond day time and a prolonged continuance of bar-fetters shall be with the approval of the Chief Judicial Magistrate or a Sessions Judge.

In another case of "Prem Shankar Shukla Vs. Delhi Administration," the Supreme Court struck down the provisions of the Panjab Police rules which discrimina-ted between the rich and the poor prisoner in deter-mining who was to be handcuffed. The Court also held that in the absence of the escorting authority re-cording why the prisoner is being put under handcuffs, the procedure of handcuffing is a violation of Article 21

The court concluded with the observation : "We clearly declare and it shall be obeyed from the Inspector General of Police and Inspector General of Prisons to the escort constable and the jail warder-that the rule regarding a prisoner in transit between prison house and court house is freedom from handcuffs and the exception, under conditions of judicial supervision we have indicated earlier, will be restraints with irons to be justified before or after. We mandate the judicial officer before whom the prisoner is produced to interrogate the prisoner as a rule, whether he has been subjected to handcuffs or other 'irons' treatment, and if he has been, the official concerned shall be asked to explain the ac-tion forthwith in the light of this judgement."

The Supreme Court has given a new dimension to the writ of habeas corpus by its judgement in Sunil Batra 'll' vs. Delhi Administration. While the deci-sion of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in Sunil Batra I vs. Delhi Admn. had crystalized the legally enforceable rights of a prisoner, the later deci-sion in Sunil Batra II has radicalised the procedure for the enforcement of the rights of the prisoners.

The habeas corpus writ was traditionally used for securing the release of a person detained illegally. It is a favoured remedy because of its simplicity, non-techni-cality and the priority which is given to its hearing by courts. Sunil Batra II lays down the important princi-ple of law that a writ of habeas corpus is available not only to secure the release of a prisoner illegally detain-ed but also to regulate the conditions and manner of detention of a person whose detention is lawful. Thus a speedy and simple remedy is available to prisoners to seek redress of their grievances about the manner of their detention.

The prisoners now have an important forum for the enforcement of their rights. As all the grievances could formerly be aired only through the prison-hierarchy, very few prisoners voiced any complaints for fear of retaliation. The very existence of the remedy of a writ of habeas corpus would be a deterrent to jail authorities and could prevent arbitrary and capricious action.

In another recent landmark judgement in the case of "Francies Corale Mullin vs. the Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi & others", the Supreme Court explained the ingredients of personal liberty under Article 21. The case arose out of the rights of a detainee under COFEPOSA to have an interview with his family members and lawyers. The meeting with family members was restricted to one a month and the lawyer could be met only in the presence of an officer of the customs department. The Supreme Court ruled that the right to life and liberty included his right to live with human dignity and therefore a detainee would be entitled to have interviews with family members, friends and lawyers without these severe restrictions.

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