Two daring escapes from high-security prisons in a span of less than one month has provided a major jolt to the concerned states and the Centre and posed uncomfortable questions about the law & order situation and prisons management.
In an audacious daylight raid, six hardened criminals executed a plan to free none other than Khalistan Liberation Force Harminder alias Mintoo along with another terrorist and another four dreaded criminals. The raiding party masqueraded as cops with a supposed prisoner in handcuffs to gain entry inside the high-security prison without raising any doubt in the minds of the prison watch & ward staff. Once inside, the attackers snatched a rifle and fired indiscriminately before making good with the escapees in the waiting cars. No resistance was offered and the operation lasted less than a quarter of an hour.
The escape of eight SIMI cadres from the high-security Bhopal prison in the wee hours of October 31, and subsequent encounter resulting in the death of all fugitives within hours at the hands of the anti-terrorist squad (ATS) of Madhya Pradesh has triggered a vociferous debate on the validity of the encounter.
Theoretically, the possibility of escape from jails should be nil. The jail manuals and standing operating procedures (SOPs) are very elaborate in spelling out the security protocols. Whenever inmates are taken out or locked out for the day or night, a headcount is done. Locks of barracks are changed every day. Every barrack is under the watch of at least one sentry or warder who knows and identifies his wards. CCTV cameras are installed in sensitive prisons. The air is, however, rife with innuendos and allegations of laxity and complicity in both the breakouts.
Recovery of mobile phones, drugs, and other contraband from jails has been reported at almost regular intervals. Inefficiency, corruption, collusion, patronage to some high profile convicts and undertrials, official apathy and political interference have all been associated with the prisons. Prisons are also accused of becoming nurseries for hardened criminals than reformatories.
Manpower crunch is the bane of prisons set up in India
The National Crime Records Bureau’s figures for 2015 place the nationwide vacancy figure at 27,000 which is a worrying 34 per cent on which no hue and cry is raised on any platform. Some of the prisons operate with as few as 8 warders!
The Model Prisons Manual, 2016 circulated to all the states for adoption prescribes a ratio of 6:1 in every shift. By the MHA norms, the staff strength should be more than 1500 for the Bhopal prison and 1200 for the Nabha jail. Compared to these, Bhopal has just about 200 persons and jails in Punjab have an average staff of 85. These MHA norms may be very exacting on the state exchequer, but there is a definite need for rationalisation of human resource needed in prisons across the country.
Arranging funds for strengthening of the prison system has always been an issue since 1838 when “Lord Auckland’s Government accepted generally the views of the (first Prisons) Commission, but, having regard to the great expense which they entailed and the many difficulties that beset the introduction of a complete jail system in India, enjoined caution in carrying them out.”
Since the return on investment in enforcement apparatus cannot be quantified, there is a general diffidence in making an adequate allocation for them. The 1998 escape of 78 prisoners from Nizamabad jail, now in Telangana, by virtue of their sheer numbers compared to the available guarding staff, is a grim reminder of the need for adequate staff to perform their custodial responsibilities and quell riots which break out inside the prisons.
The law and order machinery in the states had immensely benefited by the Central government funded India Reserve Battalions which infused much-needed manpower into the beleaguered state police forces. Funds for infrastructure, equipment, and salary for the initial five years were provided by the Centre. A similar Central scheme to augment manpower in the jails is the need of the hour as the fiscal health of most of the states may not allow them to create more jobs.
The prisons are beset with the problem of overcrowding. The national overcrowding percentage stands at just fifteen percent. Bhopal prison houses 3000 prisoners against a capacity of just 1400. The Nabha jail is slightly better with the occupancy rate of 118 per cent. Besides issues of hygiene, human rights, medical care, security, alacrity, and watch and ward functions also become complicated given the inadequate manpower. Capacity expansion in jails and provision of the matching staff are immediate requirements.
The availability of modern gadgetry for watch and ward functions, access control, surveillance, perimeter security, point to point communication, force multipliers and arming policy vary from state to state showing disparate allocation of resources to achieve a basic uniform minimum standard. The modernisation plan for prisons had been discontinued by UPA-II which has also affected the process of upscaling of infrastructure and equipment in the prisons.
In reply to an unstarred question in Lok Sakha in August 2015, the Minister of State for Home stated that “a consolidated Memorandum was submitted by the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Fourteenth Finance Commission for consideration which included the demands projected by the States/UTs amounting to Rs. 13,962.60 crore for prison reforms in the second phase of modernisation of prisons. The 14th Finance Commission has observed that in view of the improved outlay for States now, there is appropriate fiscal space to provide for additional expenditure needed for their requirements. The 14th Finance Commission has not made any specific fund allocation in favour of Central Government for this purpose. Therefore, with appropriate prioritisation, the States/UTs should be able to meet the proposed expenditure on modernisation of jails.”
The refusal of the 14th Finance Commission to allocate any funds for the scheme has dealt a severe blow to the modernisation of prisons in India. The Apex Court has directed the Centre and states to install CCTV cameras in all prisons. Like Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) for the police, e-prison software to automate processes is also at different stages of implementation. Both these projects are possible only with assured financial support either from the Centre or the states or in combination with the Centre picking up the bigger tab. The modernisation plan has been revived for the police and Central armed forces. The same needs to be done for the prison administration which is an equally important part of the criminal justice system.
Basic and in-service training in the prisons departments is also a major casualty. Some of the states do not even have a single training institution of their own. Ministry of Home Affairs should prepare a scheme for setting up of training institutes in all the states and Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) should design basic and in-service courses for all levels of prison personnel. Most of the ground level staff has not undergone any in-service training in the prisons across the country.
Intelligence and internal vigilance are alien features in jail administration. There is no intelligence staff sanctioned for co-ordination between the prisons and other agencies like the police, Narcotics Control Bureau and intelligence agencies. Internal vigilance works as a great deterrent to most of the ills associated with enforcement functions in the jails. Intelligence and internal vigilance cells should be created at the state prisons headquarters, central jails and all district jails.
Most of the prison reforms that are taking place are due to a proactive judiciary. The Independent India has seen several committees on different aspects of prisons reforms recommending overhauling of the prison administration and replacement of obsolete and archaic prison laws and manuals with modern laws in synch with the times. In 1999, a draft Model Prisons Management Bill (The Prison Administration and Treatment of Prisoners Bill- 1998) was circulated to replace the Prison Act 1894 by the government of India to the states but this bill is yet to be enacted. Reform and rehabilitation are the buzzwords in the correctional discourse. Improvement in correctional administration can be expected only when a sound legal base is provided by amending or replacing the Prisons Manual and the Prisons Act.
India has seen some sensational jailbreaks in the past. Daring escape of 43 LTTE cadres from Vellore Fort in August 1995 and escape of three inmates accused of the assassination of a Chief Minister from the model central jail Burail in Chandigarh along with the daring gunbattle escapes of Maoists from Jehanabad jail are still fresh in the mind. In 2015, eighty-nine inmates escaped from the prisons while another 111 ran away from police custody outside the prison complexes. The escape of most of these inmates did not make headlines. National attention is attracted only when high profile and notorious prisoners escape from the jails. And it is for such prisoners that the jail administration has to plan and provide for.
The prison establishment may be expensive to maintain, but is essential for any society. There is a need to accord priority and address issues affecting the efficiency of the prisons and reform and rehabilitation programmes. MHA may consider detailing an officer exclusively for the prisons related issues and to coordinate with the states and other stakeholders. Ministry of home affairs should order a security audit of all prisons on fixed parameters and after gap analysis, corrective measures should be taken in a time-bound manner. Unless the reforms agenda is pursued vigorously by committing funds and enhancing manpower, incidents like Bhopal and Nabha will keep occurring and the basic issues of custody, care and rehabilitation will be ignored by TRP hungry media.
(Somesh Goyal is a Himachal Pradesh cadre IPS officer. Views are personal.)