Prisons do not merely serve purposes of punishment – to rehabilitate individuals and allow reintegration in society, prisons must be disrobed of their traditional regressive design
48-year-old Manoj Jha today is a reformed and confident person. No one, including him, can really believe that he had been in jail for almost 14 years. At the last leg of his punishment as a life convict, he was sent to the Hoshangabad Open Jail in Madhya Pradesh. This ushered in major alterations in his life. With 22 inmates in the open jail, he began his own venture as a contractor. Joined in his venture by three more inmates from the jail, they together began going out on a daily basis and, very soon, started earning almost Rs one lakh a month. Today, Manoj Jha is seen as a symbol of the success of open jails in India. This matter is crucial in light of the ongoing debate on the need for open jails in our country.
The inhuman condition of prisons in India has forced the Supreme Court to intervene in the conduct of the same. Taking into account the study conducted by the Rajasthan Legal Services Authority on open prisons and later on brought into focus by amicus curiae Gaurav Agarwal, the need for having more open spaces in prisons is now gaining prominence.
The Supreme Court of India, in the matter of suo motu Writ Petition (Civil) No. 406/2013 titled Inhuman Conditions Prevailing in 1382 Prisons in India, has asked the Centre and all states to implement its directions on prison reforms. SC directed the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to send a communication to all states/UTs asking for their response to the idea of open prisons – whether they are willing to set up open prisons and the manner in which the open prisons could be feasibly operated. A time period of four weeks was fixed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, in October 2017. In pursuance of these meetings, the Bureau of Police Research & Development (BPR&D) has convened several more meetings, the latest one in May 2018, to recommend uniform guidelines for the administration of open jails throughout the country.
As far as the technicality is concerned, an open prison differs from ordinary prisons in four respects – in structure (dealing with organisation and administration), in role systems (related to work and interaction in everyday life), in normative systems (in the context of social restrictions and expectations guiding behaviour) and in value orientations (impacting conduct and training).
In India, the first open prison was started in 1905 under the Bombay Presidency. The prisoners were selected from the special class prisoners of Thane Central Jail, Bombay. However, this open prison was closed in 1910. Later on, the state of Uttar Pradesh established the first open prison camp in 1953 for the construction of a dam over Chandraprabha River near Benaras (now Varanasi).
After completing this dam, the prisoners of the open camp were shifted to a nearby place for constructing the dam over Karamnasa River. The third camp was organised at Shahbad for digging a canal.
Encouraged by the success of these temporary camps, a permanent camp was started on March 15, 1956, at Mirzapur, with a view to employing prisoners on the work of quarrying stones for the Uttar Pradesh government cement factory, located at Churk, Mirzapur. The initial strength of prisoners in this camp was 150, which went up to 1,700 but is not operational now. Another permanent camp, called Sampurnanad Shivir, was established in 1960 at Sitarganj in Nainital district of Uttar Pradesh (now Uttarakhand).
At the time of its establishment, Sampurnanand camp had 5,965 acres of land but, later on, another 2,000 acres of reclaimed land was handed over to the Uttar Pradesh government for the rehabilitation of displaced prisoners. At present, thus, the Sitarganj camp has 3,837 acres of land and is one of the largest open prisons in the world.
Ironically, of the 63 open jails in the country, only four accept women inmates. Yerawada Open Jail and the Women's Open Prison in Trivandrum are exclusively for women, while Durgapura and Sanganer Open Camps in Rajasthan accommodate just a few women inmates. The other 59 open prisons in India have no provision for housing women inmates. It is clearly evident that in some states, women are, in fact, explicitly barred in the admission criteria to open prisons, owing to the belief that the presence of women may lead to some complexities.
However, this situation also indicates the lax attitude towards open jails and also the cold disposition towards introducing women to them. For instance, Uttar Pradesh, despite being the largest state in India, has no open jail and there is still no concrete proposal, till this date. States like West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand did not provide any details in this regard till the last proceeding in the Supreme Court. There is one open jail in Tihar with about 40 males and no female at all. But there are better examples too. For instance, the state of Gujarat has three open-air jails and the construction of one jail at Baroda is under progress. Proposals are also underway to set up open-air campuses in the Ahmedabad city central prison, Vadodara district prison, Junagadh district prison and Amreli district prison. The state of Maharashtra has 13 open-air prisons, including two for women and there is a proposal to start open-air prisons at six more places. Himachal Pradesh tops the list with seven open jails whereas Madhya Pradesh has two open jails, one in Hoshangabad and the other in Satna with a capacity of 25 inmates each. There is also a proposal to establish 10 open-air camps in central prisons.
One cannot hide the fact that prisons have never been on the list of priority both for the Centre and the respective states. Since the inmates are not allowed to vote, they do not receive any political attention. Second, those who are out of sight are also forgotten very quickly. Prisons surely fall under this category of wishful forgetfulness. While the world celebrates International Women's Day every year on March 8, no one seems to be bothered by the fact that India has only 18 jails specifically for women and just two open jails.
With 149 prisons in India encountering an overcrowding of more than 150 per cent, it may be added that open prisons need to be restructured, recognised and implemented. Open prisons must be established in all those states where they do not exist at present. But, who will bring this wisdom to the table and also undertake the onerous effort of getting these ideas executed?
(The author is a prison reformer and a media educator. She is the Founder of Tinka Tinka – a unique series to bring change in the lives of jail inmates. The views expressed are strictly personal)