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The first jail reforms: Addressing plight of SC, ST undertrials needing legal aid

By Gagan Sethi*

The Centre for Social Justice started a programme of Janvikas in 1996 with a view to ensure that access to justice became a reality for those who needed it most. Begun in two districts, Surendranagar and Vadodara, we were given a small room in district court premises to proactively provide quality legal services free – courtesy then acting Chief Justice RA Mehta.
It was an attempt at fulfilling and understanding Article 39A of the Constitution, which provides that the state shall secure the operation of a legal system, which promotes justice on the basis of equal opportunity, and offers free legal aid through suitable legislation or schemes to ensure equal opportunities. It was necessary to see that justice is not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or any other disability. Articles 14 and 22(1) also make it obligatory for the state to ensure equality before law and a legal system which promotes justice.
One of the vulnerable groups to whom legal aid is most needed is under-trials languishing in jails, especially from the SC and ST communities, who have been criminalized by society. These communities form twice their actual percentage in jail.
We began by asking the jail authorities to allow us to access undertrials so that those who were on charges which are bailable could be provided support. It was difficult to get permission.
Sitting in my office one day, I heard a loud siren and screeching of a small convoy. One of my staff came running in and said some minister had come in. I was surprised; we as a voluntary organization would keep away from politicians.
Within a few seconds a sprightly handsome tall man walked in and said “I am Jaspal Singh”, ex-cop, now the new jail minister.
What he said was pleasantly surprising: “I want help from organisations like yours to make my jails more human. Also I want a system where prisoners, who need not be there, are out. Under-trials can’t be given work so they have to be involved in some activity” etc. etc.
I said I would like to visit a sample of jails across Gujarat and then present to him our recommendations.
I was prepared to see filth, squalor, misery. What I saw was overcrowding to the tune of three to four times capacity in many sub-jails. But worse, most jails were understaffed. In one sub-jail of Khambhat, what I saw was hilarious: The capacity was 15, and there were 60 under-trials. The sub-jail had a courtyard and cells. The guards were positioned in the cells and the 60 under-trials were in the courtyard!
My interviews with the jail staff left me dumbfound. The tasks that they were supposed to do, and their volume of work, left me in no doubt that if I was one of them I wouldn’t be able to do half of their work. For example, a postcard was issued to a prisoner once a week. But to issue it, the jail clerk and jail guards had to fill in entries in at least three registers, countersigned by officers, and it would take up to 20 minutes to issue one. If one was to issue 100 postcards a day, there would be nothing else to do; whereas the list of daily tasks of the clerks, jailors and guards is long.
All my worry about the cruel behaviour of the staff was transformed into an empathy towards them. A jail clerk told me laughingly: “Sir, these under-trials come and go, we are in prison for life!” I wrote about this in my report, insisting, we could take up issues of jail conditions later on; what was more important was that people working in these prisons needed a more compassionate and professional work environment. No wonder, we had a situation where a postcard would cost Rs 20!
The report gave birth to a concept of prison paralegals. We trained life convicts with legal training on how to make bail applications, and our lawyers would take it forward from there. We managed to get several undertrials, who were in prison for bailable offences, released.
There was a young DIG of prisons, PC Thakur. He was very enthusiastic and quite creative in his work in Ahmedabad central jail. He is presently DG of Gujarat police. I just hope he remembers that the work he started should get more impetus now, not just in Ahmedabad, but across the state.
There is a need to provide lot of support for such initiatives. There is a need to humanize the space, which is at present quite dehumanizing. And the reason is, we cannot provide adequate infrastructure and train well-paid jail staff.

*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social justice. This article first appeared in DNA

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