April 28, 2021

Earthquake Trauma: Thought about jail inmates?


Prasun Goswami

A massive earthquake of the 6.4 Richter scale had hit Assam today early in the morning. Earthquakes are not new to this part of the country, but in my twenty-eight years of existence, I have never witnessed a massive one like this. The epicenter of this earthquake was Dhekiajuli in Assam and it has been alleged that the residents of the regions around the epicenter could hear a shooing sound from within the land, trees dancing crazily, and humans falling apart during the earthquake. The shooing sound is further alleged to have been consistent till a stretch of eight kilometers. This was horrific and the aftershock is persisting for a long time after the tremor now.
When an earthquake strikes, it is out of our reflex action that a human tries to evacuate herself to a safe place. It is the basic human right of every human in this world to try mobilizing themselves to a safer place during times of natural calamity. The Indian Constitution guarantees this right to every citizen of this country through its Article 21 (right to life and liberty).
During an earthquake or any other such fatal natural calamity, the prisoners locked inside the congested prison cells are the worst sufferers of panic and anxiety attacks. While being caged in overcrowded barracks, they are immovable and are left with no opportunity to save their lives. This causes a tense situation inside the prisons which not only leads to the riot-like situation but also is unfair to the prisoners.
In the year 2015 after the earthquake had struck Nepal, tremors of earthquakes were felt in the bordering districts of Bihar. One summer afternoon an earthquake of 4.5 Richter scale had rocked the Bhagalpur district of Bihar. A prison researcher who was working with the inmates of Bhagalpur Jail then narrates the horrific experience where all the locked prisoners started to scream asking for help, this further escalated into a prison riot-like situation. Imagine prison barracks in an old dilapidated building and caging over thousand of prisoners there during a lethal earthquake!! Any death under such circumstances will amount to culpable homicide instigated by the state that has caged them under such inhuman conditions. Article 21 guarantees the right to life and liberty to all its citizens and further in the petition Sunil Batra Vs Union of Delhi, the Apex Court have stated that the prisoners cannot be denied their rights guaranteed under Article 21 of our Constitution. The order against the petition further states that the right to life does not only extend to ensuring the continuation of the biological life of the inmates but also extends to a right to dignified living.
The Judiciary believes incarceration is a reformative process rather than a punitive one. It urges the state to build and operate its prisons in compliance with the Nelson Mandela Prison Rules so that the inmates can have a dignified life which facilitates their reformation. But the Indian Prisons have been operating in the exact opposite way.
In a petition Re: In-human conditions at 1382 prisons vs the State of Assam, the Apex Court has noted that the overcrowding percentage in the Indian prisons exceeds 50% of its occupancy limit. This contradicts the data reported in the Prison Statistics of India by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The NCRB reported in 2019 that the percentage of overcrowding in the Indian Prisons is merely 12-16%.
A report “Closed Prisons of Rajasthan”, published under the aegis of the Rajasthan High Court has reported the overcrowding to be 233% in some jails of Rajasthan. This is utterly heinous to incarcerate a human in such appalling condition. The report further reports the pathetic condition of the prison buildings, its food, toilets and sanitation, hospitals, and other utilities.
Indian Jails have been maintaining the culture of caging the inmates for around 13-16 hours a day in locked barracks. These barracks are mostly overcrowded and lack proper space for sleeping and sanitation. It is half walled, doorless, sanitation system less and running waterless toilets within the barracks for the prisoners during the time they are locked in. leaving aside the caste-class influential prisoners, others don’t get a chance to sleep or even lay down while being locked up. The prisoner coming from the most downtrodden environment occupies a space near the half-walled toilets within the barracks. They spend years sitting beside the toilets daily for around 13-16 hours. The jails allow the prisoners to move around the prison campus for few hours a day. The prisoners are expected to wash and clean themselves, were their clothes, play, and work, and eat within this stipulated time gap. A power dynamics play here and all the influential prisoners get a chance to wash and clean them; the ones from the downtrodden background are again deprived.

Rajasthan faces extreme water scarcity. The prisons of Rajasthan run out of water for days together in the peak of summer months. One of the Jailors of prison in Rajasthan had once said that since the women of Rajasthan have to walk kilometers to fetch water; it is utterly justified to let the prisoners starve for water during the peak of the summer season. This statement of the Prison Officials shows the apathy the prisoners have been facing. Since the mobility of the prisoners is curtailed by the State, hence it is the sole responsibility of the State to ensure basic rights of survival to the prisoners.
The Indian Prisons has caged the prisoners in such dilapidated conditions that no reformation is possible there. Caging humans is not only regressive but is anti-human to its core. The prisoners are also having non-deniable human rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Indian State is openly violating the same.
Natural calamities have been very traumatic for the prisoners. The state is violating their basic human rights and this must stop. The state should stop caging humans in appalling conditions. They should uphold the true objective of incarceration, which is reformation. The prison campuses should allow free mobility of the prisoners and the prisons should be de-congested. More than 60% of the prisoners in Indian Prisons are under trial. The Courts should consider allowing them to leave in bails. Further, long sentences are inhuman and should be stopped. Long sentences wither a human from within and diminish his chances of reformation. The aged prisoners who are serving long sentences should be released and more emphasis should be given to the reformation of the prisoners so that an equitable and egalitarian society is built. Restorative justice is the only way to a progressive crimeless society and the Indian State should resort to it.

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