Prisons are increasingly becoming dens of crime. Such incidents underscore the grave prevalence of walls that are porous and enable the inmates to acquire the means to commit crimes. Alongside, they put a question mark on the role of jail officials under whose nose such activities occur. Reports of drug trafficking, sexual and other forms of abuse, violence and jailbreaks permeate from the closed confines with alarming regularity. The recent murder with an iron rod of prisoner Bittu, an accused in the Bargari sacrilege case, in the Nabha jail allegedly by two fellow inmates — a murder convict and a murder accused — is the latest high-profile case that brings to fore the issue of safety in jails. The suspension of a few officials and the order of an inquiry following a public hue and cry are routine exercises that inspire little confidence.
The measures taken towards ensuring human rights of those incarcerated have proved to be dismally below par. Compounding the matter of prison reforms is the fact that our jails continue to be highly overpopulated and grossly understaffed. Unfortunately, value of human life is the first casualty as most of those imprisoned are poor, from the margins. Caught for petty crimes, they can ill afford legal counsel. The constraints of an overburdened judiciary further decelerate the wheels of the process for their freedom. More than two-thirds of those incarcerated are undertrials. Also, convicts often unjustly end up spending more time behind bars than their punishment warrants. The atmosphere breeds frustration, anger and crime.
The NHRC report of 2014 points out that the authorities’ deaf ear to prisoner complaints and the deplorable condition of Punjab jails have made them enclosures with the second highest number of suicides. Jail officials in charge of their care and custody escape responsibility in the absence of any overt act of commission. The prison crisis is profound. Entangled in a heartless system, it gets pushed under the carpet due to the out-of-sight-out-of-mind syndrome. Bittu’s murder in jail must spur the government into mitigating the prisoners’sorry plight.