The SC, in the case of Re – Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons (II) today directed the Union of India through the Ministry of Home Affairs to get status update about compliance of previous orders passed by the SC on 5th February 2016 and 6th May, 2016, as on 30th September, 2016. The SC had on 5th February passed a detailed order drawing attention to the ever-increasing menace of over-crowded prisons and had also given directions to the States which would help reduce prison population and thus, generally improve the living conditions of prisoners. The Court had further issued directions to the States on 6th May to prepare a detailed Plan of Action suggesting measures and ways to deal with prison over-crowding. The Bench comprising of Justice Madan B. Lokur and Justice R.K. Agarwal, while giving the above directions, noted that due importance must be given even to the rights of prisoners, whether convicts or under trials.
This case forms part of one of the few extra-ordinary cases, where the Supreme Court invoked its epistolary jurisdiction whereby it considered a letter and converted it into a Public Interest Litigation. On 13.06.2013, Former Chief Justice of India R.C. Lahoti wrote a letter to the then Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir, drawing attention towards the appalling situation of over-crowded prisons based on a newspaper story published in Dainik Bhaskar (National Edition) on 24th March, 2013. The Court has since then issued various orders in the quest to reduce the over-burdened prisons. The Court while heavily relying on various other landmark judgments on prison-reforms, such as Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration; Charles Sobraj v. Supdt., Central Jail, Tihar; Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi; Nilabati Behera v. State of Orissa; D.K. Basu v. State of W.B., observed as follows:
“8. We are a little distressed to note that even though this Court has held on several occasions that prisoners both under trials and convicts have certain fundamental rights and human rights, little or no attention is being paid in this regard by the States and some Union Territories including the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Certainly fundamental rights and human rights of people, however they may be placed, cannot be ignored only because of their adverse circumstances. We need only remind the Union of India and the State Governments that as far back as in 1975 this Court reminded us in D. Bhuvan Mohan Patnaik v. State of Andhra Pradesh (referring to a decade old decision in State of Maharashtra v. Prabhakar Pandurang Sangzgiri)….
11. Unless due importance is given to the fundamental rights and human rights of the people, the right to life and the right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution will have no meaning.”
The Bench was informed by the Amicus Curiae appointed in this case that there are several jails where over-crowding goes up to the extent of more than 150%, that is, almost more than one and a half times the number of prisoners than the permissible limit. By a Note dated 20.09.2016, the Amicus brought the following statics to the knowledge of the Court with regard to overcrowding upto 150% of the permissible limits:
“….jails in Assam (8), Chhattisgarh (17), Jharkhand (3), Karnataka (7), Kerala (21), Madhya Pradesh (5), Maharashtra (16), Rajasthan (21), Uttar Pradesh (47) and Delhi (12).”
The Court termed these figures indicating over-crowding of jails as, ‘the situation continues to be not only tragic but also pathetic…. It is unfortunate that in spite of our directions the prison authorities have not been able to take any effective steps for reducing over-crowding in jails.’. The Court further observed that ‘excessive’ over-crowding of prisons is not the only problem, other issues such as hygiene, sanitation, management, discipline etc., come hand in hand with the main problem, thus over-crowding of prisons cannot be dealt with, in isolation.
The Court had in its previous orders appointed an Under-trial Review Committee to look into cases of various under-trial prisoners, who, by reasons of poverty, are unable to get bail, but otherwise entitled to be set free. The Court on a later date even expanded the horizon of this Committee by enlisting certain other cases, which must also be examined by the Committee.
Today, the Court ordered the States and the Inspector General of Prisons to prepare a viable Plan of Action ‘either to reduce over-crowding’ or ‘to augment the infrastructure’ so that there is more space available for each prisoner, within six months or latest, in any event by 31st March, 2017. Although certain States had prepared Plan of Action in accordance with previous orders, however the Court found the plan of action very obscure, without any specific time frame or proper allocation of resources for construction of more barracks. The Court has also ordered the Ministry of Women and Child Development (under the Government of India) to hasten the process of preparing a Manual for juveniles in custody and thereby finalize it by 30th November, 2016.
The case now listed for 18th October, with directions for a report of the status of compliances made by the States, to ensure rights of prisoners is given due importance irrespective of whether they are convicts or merely under-trial.
Read the SC order.