Open prisons: Why India should move towards reforming its inmates
Many, perhaps most, of our societies would consider it a taboo to let sentence-serving convicts mingle with ordinary citizens. The fear of prisoners being habitual law-breakers is enough to deter most governments from letting them outside jails. But this norm has been challenged with interesting results.
Take the case of Rajasthan, which took inspiration from a few other states and introduced an imprisonment model that is humane and more economical than traditional prisons. In fact, if all goes well, the Supreme Court may ask others states to similarly do away with iron bars and concrete walls – typical markers of gaols.
Such open prisons allow convicts to live with their families, go out every day to eke out a living and return in time for the evening roll call. In case anybody falls back onto criminal ways, s/he is sent to a traditional closed prison.
There are 63 such open jails in 15 states now; Rajasthan accounts 29 of them.
In 2013, the apex court took suo moto cognisance of the inhuman conditions prevalent in 1,382 Indian jails. Since then it has been passing orders to improve their conditions, highlighting the Right to Life and Personal Liberty as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
Last December the top court ordered the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to hold a meeting of the Directors-general and Inspectors-general of Prison of all states and Union Territories (UT) to examine the possibility of opening such prisons in every district. The court also asked MHA to seek response to the idea from all states and Uts. It also asked National Legal Services Authority to similarly seek the views of state Legal Services Authorities.
Much of the basis of such observations from the Supreme Court was a report on the Rajasthan's open prisons by Smita Chakraburtty. The court directed that the MHA meeting be held in the first week of February, and that it includes Chakraburtty. Catch spoke to her when she was in Delhi for the hearing, which has been postponed. Edited excerpts of the interview:
Akash Bisht: Why do we need open prisons? How did you take up this issue?
Smita Chakraburtty: Overcrowding is a major issue in prisons. During my visits to prisons in Bihar, I found there was not even enough space for inmates to sit. One ward I visited had a capacity of two but housed 25 prisoners. The inmates said they took turns to sleep; some even tied themselves to bars so that they could sleep standing up.
In 2014, Patna High Court SSLA VN Sinha asked me to ispect prisons in Bihar and prepare a report. I visited all 58 prisons there, spoke to 30,070 prisoners on record and filed a report that was published by the court. The National Human Rights Commission and a Parliamentary Standing Committee took cognisance of it.
Later, the DG (Prisons) of Rajasthan asked me whether I have visited any open prison. I informed him about my visits to such prisons in Bihar and West Bengal.
He told me how such jails in Rajasthan were different – family members were living with inmates, who were also working. He narrated a very interesting incident: inmates of an open prison in Sanaganer didn't want to leave even after their terms ended. He would have to evict them and they were fasting in protest. I had never heard of prisoners being evicted earlier. All prisoners I interviewed wanted to e free, inclusing those in an open prison in Buxar.
When I spoke to the prisoners in Rajasthan they wanted extensions, saying they might not get similar employment as they had in jail after release. Then, I began studying Rajasthan's open prison system.
SLSA Chairman Justice KS Jhaveri, who is from Gujarat, found it interesting and asked whether inmates would flee from such open prisons. After I told him how they were reluctant to leave, he commissioned a study that was taken up by the SC.
AB: Rajasthan is a success story. How did the concept of open prisons emerge there?
SC: RK Saxena, a former superintendent at Ajmer Model Prison, led a change. Some prisoners were given a chance to reform: they were allowed to live in open prisons with their families. Saxena drafted the rules that led to the creation of the first open prison in Durgapura near Jaipur in 1954-55. He started the Sanganer open prison.
When the convicts were shifted to Sanganer, people raised questions about safety and security. Saxena told them “you should get to know the inmates”. The then chief secretary supported the initiative. Saxena believed if you keep a prisoner in open prison, the onus of liberty is on the prisoner.
Now Rajasthan has 30 prisons and the government is planning to open more such prisons. Since it started here, we would want to take a lead and the judiciary too is extremely interested.
AB: How has the other states responded?
SC: During the MHA meeting, it seemed that the state governments had doubts. Open prisons are already part of the system and state governments said that they are reading my report. They are not negating or accepting it. They are saying we have two, we will open five more. That is a beginning and it is a positive response. Though there is a misunderstanding that open prisons are expensive to construct.
But what I am suggesting is that in the Rajasthan model there are no fixed structures – like Jyetsar where there are only clay structures. There is no electricity, but prisoners never complain. If you keep a prisoner in a Jyetsar who comes from a farming community, he will have no problem living in Jyetsar where there are huge farms. The farm owners come every morning and take them in tractors to work, feed them lunch, pay them wages and drop them back.
AB: What about social acceptability to open prisons?
SC: In Sanganer, when it started, the locals filed a complaint with the government and then chief secretary asked Saxena for a solution. He then suggested that let the prisoners go out and let outsiders also come to prison. At that time, there was a doctor and the locals would come visit him for treatment.
Prisoners in Sanganer, some of whom have been convicted for murder, work as security guards, domestic help, barbers, daily wagers, accountants, teachers, auto drivers, among others. There are some big restaurants in Sanganer which are being run by former prisoners. Also, a factory has been set up by a former prisoner. These all people employ former prisoners so there is a sort of social acceptability.
AB: Is there any criteria for whom can be sent to these open prisons?
SC: Yes, there is a criteria. It says if you are convicted and have spent five years in prison. A prisoner is also judged on his conduct. However, in reality, there is less space in open prison as compared to close prison. So, it is done on the basis of seniority.
AB: How would anyone know if someone is engaging in criminal activities in an open prison?
SC: For that one has to conduct surprise inspections. Second, if someone commits a crime, the police would be the first to know. If they find that someone from the open prison has done it, he would be sent to closed prison immediately.
Also, a criminal is constantly under the gaze of the society. In an open jail, just assume that there is a huge fight in the prison, the locals are bound to report it. Interestingly, in Sanganer, there is no domestic violence because the prisoner knows that if he gets reported, he would be sent back. They have to maintain good conduct.
AB: Won't a victim's family think the idea of justice gets diluted that in an open prison as inmates live a normal life?
SC: According to law, anybody in conflict with law is imprisoned. It does not mean it has be a closed prison. This is just a humane way. I am not saying that the prisoner is innocent. A common man might say that he killed my brother and he is walking freely. But, the convict is not living at home, he is living in a prison. He is bound by some rules and regulations. His imprisonment is the justice that you get.
Criminalisation is not a solution to crime or a social reform. That can only happen if prisoners live in an open prison. Every prisoner in an open prison is also a message to the society that if you do anything illegal, you might end up like them.
As far as the victim is concerned, he might want the accused to be hanged but the justice system doesn't work like that. It has to be just to the victim as well as the accused. For me, open prisons should be the norm and closed prisons the exception. Also, if someone escapes on parole from open prison, I use it as a means to justify to victims that how open prisons are also like real prisons. Prison is also a psychological thing.
AB: Why do you say open prisons are more economical?
SC: What is the point of spending crores on a sense of security that doesn't even exist? Why do you keep convicts in prisons? It is just for the sake of social security.
In my report, I have said get Vijay Mallya back and let him be in an open prison, considering it is a matter of international shame that our prisons are inhuman.
Jaipur Central Jail has an annual budget of Rs 18 crore while Sanganer's annual budget is only Rs 22 lakh. I am not even calculating the architecture and land cost. When it comes to open prison, in Sanganer the cost per prisoner is Rs 500 while in Jaipur it is between Rs 7,000 and Rs 10,000.
AB: What is Bandi Panchayat?
SC: It was started by Saxena. Bandi panchayat is an elected five-member committee with a one-year term set up for administrative control. They take care of basic conducts like someone fighting or drinking. They control by warning prisoners. They can complain to the prison department about a certain individual and he would be sent back.
If any individual creates nuisance, the bandi panchayat tells them that if the locals complaint the entire open prison could be shut. So, for the liberty of all, we have to be careful and that is why we keep an eye on you. It is a process of self discipline.
AB: What is your opinion about keeping undertrials in such prisons?
SC: The case for undertrials is even stronger. In the court of law, it has been proven that convicts have perpetrated a crime but when it comes to undertrial, you know he is not convicted. So, he is on a better footing and legally he has not yet received the tag of a criminal.
If you keep someone in prison for five years and then acquit him, his life is destroyed. So, this is more humane because he continues to live his life. Prison becomes a regressive method because when he comes back, he is a social reject and then is more likely to commit another crime.