Is prison surely the greatest leveller ?

As the start of the change series, I felt what better than starting the nuance of Prisons in India, and the undertrials that languish in jail, even worse, die in these prisons waiting for their trials to even begin. This is a short account on Indian prisons solely based on all the books I have read and all the web-content I could accumulate.

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Though prisons are supposed to be levelling institutions in which the variables that affect the conditions of confinement are expected to be the criminal records of their inmates and their behaviour in prison, other factors play a part in many countries. But India and Pakistan have retained colonial era regulations which explicitly counter the concept of prison as leveller. In a country in which a governmental

The terms “prison” and “jail” are used interchangeably in India, perhaps reflecting the fact that no significant effort is made to separate “undertrials,” as those awaiting trial are known, from convicts. Separation of undertrials from convicts is required by a decision of India’s Supreme Court, but this decision is widely ignored in practice. A substantial majority of all prisoners are “undertrials.”

 

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Legal commitment to egalitarianism is taken for granted, and where the intense and often violent debate over equal rights mainly concerns how far to extend a quota system to benefit “untouchables” — or “Dalit” (the oppressed, as some prefer to be known) — tribal people and other so-called “backward classes,” there is a rigid class system in the prisons in much of the country that is explicitly mandated by Law.

Under this system, special privileges are accorded to the minority of prisoners who come from the upper or middle classes irrespective of the crimes they may have committed or the way that they comport themselves in prison. Such privileges are even conferred on prisoners who have engaged in the most violent crimes against the institutions and officials of the state. Indeed, in some respects, prisoners whose offences were politically motivated are a privileged elite, enjoying better treatment in everything from a more varied and ample diet to access to reading material.

At first when I read about the vast number of books pertaining to the issue of Indian prisons,  contradictions that I encountered were deeply puzzling. What could account for such extensive police lawlessness in a functioning democracy with a strong commitment to the rule of law and with the institutional apparatus to fulfill that commitment? Why do such abuses persist in a country in which the judiciary has included such strong advocates of human rights as former Supreme Court Justices Krishna Iyer and P.N. Bhagwati, both of whom were particularly concerned with the protection of detainees and prisoners? How to explain the avowedly unequal treatment of those who run afoul of the law in a country with such egalitarian commitments? To add to the mystery, why does a country with such a plethora of vigorous nongovernmental organisations and with a strong national awareness of civil liberties lack any significant domestic organisation with a professional staff that operates nationwide and that is capable of challenging police abuses, or abusive prison conditions or of promoting human rights generally?

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As I sought the answers to these questions, I came to believe that what  learned about the microcosm that was our concern was useful in attempting to understand the contradictions that permeate all of Indian society. Indeed, we think that our attempts to sort out the puzzle so far as the treatment is concerned of those detained in the police lock-ups and the prisons in India has helped us to deepen our own understanding of what is required in efforts to promote human rights worldwide.

Yet if the checks and balances of democracy are supposed to curb government lawlessness, something has gone wrong in India. Too often, anyone unlucky enough to be arrested faces a far greater likelihood of torture, or worse, at the hands of the police than in many countries entirely lacking in the protection for civil liberties available in India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Is prison surely the greatest leveller ?

  1. Thank you for raising these issues. Govt needs to serve the people in democracy, but with a caste system still legal and so pervasive, it will not be easy to correct these unjustices.

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  2. I can remember visiting a foreigner who got on the wrong side of the law when I lived in Mumbai long ago. It was not the best of places to be. Have you read the book “Shantiram?” That was an eye popper for me.

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