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Why the Sanjay Dutt case highlights need for jail reforms

Last updated on: May 29, 2013 16:47 IST

Our jails are not reforming inmates but are turning into an inhuman system of heaping punishment, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

It is common knowledge that jails are no picnic spots. The conditions there are horrific, including the attitude of the jail staff that tends to treat the inmates without influence like cattle class. The poorest person, meaning less scope for offering tips or bribes, suffers the worst.

It is as if the jail personnel have evolved an inhuman system of heaping punishment over and above what the courts meant to dish out. They also use other prisoners as subaltern cadre to further penalise, making jail terms double whammies.

Nobody, of course, likes to go to jail. Even those who commit crimes which may attract jail terms think of the possibility of spending time behind bars. Apparently, there is a disconnect between the crime and likely punishment in the mind. Or else, there is a belief among the being big shots that imprisonment can be eluded.

Or else Sanjay Dutt wouldn’t have played around with unlicensed, prohibited calibre firearms. Or, Suresh Jain, a former minister and a sitting legislator, would not have allowed the shadow of a scam to touch his own because of the consequences. But once the law catches up and takes them to the jail, their hardships are unnerving.

In addition to the ignominy, there is the acute discomfort.

Take, Dutt. In the character of Munnabhai, he landed up in the police lock-up in the company of his sidekick, Circuit, and dreamt of the greatness that would ensue for being put behind bars for being a Gandhian protestor. He imagined streets named after him, his framed lithographs on walls, and his face on currency notes, a la Mahatma Gandhi.

That didn’t happen in Munnabhai! In real life, this hero of motion pictures knows what it means to be incarcerated. Having been there before, he tried to avoid and then delay his imprisonment. It is hardship of a kind which only those who have suffered or seen can appreciate. It includes corruption.

That is why just as soon as he surrendered, Dutt asked for concessions: a pillow and a mattress, an electric fan, medication and home-cooked food. Apparently, these are demands of an aware person that these are poorly provided for to the inmates. His lawyer asked that he should not be “treated harshly” like other prisoners are.

No doubt a sheet is provided for as well as a blanket, but probably of a kind a self-respecting III AC passenger would refuse on the Indian Railways -- dirty, smelly, and altogether repulsive. The jail authorities believe the inmates deserve being treated like cattle class. Not just incarceration but the sadistic administration is supposed to be a good way to reform.

Little said about the food the better for nutritional needs is not the key but the budget which is normally so much per head per day that determines the diet. If the prices go up, as they surely and inexorably do, the quality takes a hit. This, of course, is after leakages which should engage the attention of the Lok Ayuktas in any state.

This is not any plea that prisoners be treated to a life of luxurious comforts that they would prefer a life away from freedom and develop a taste for it. Even a poor, one-time offender may take a fancy to habitual crime, confess and then walk back into jails. The spectrum of people in the poor to rich spectrum live differently but does it mean the state has to offer the worst, something at the lowest common denominator?

By doing that, the punitive state becomes not a reformer but morphs into a criminal for the jail manuals are seldom revised. Conditions in jails, described in popular literature of modern times, like in Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram in horrific details, are such that human rights authorities should have taken suo motu steps towards reforms.

That is why even law-makers, who may have had opportunities to improve jail conditions by sincere application of mind, have been escapist. They pretend ill-health to seek refuge in hospitals instead of cells. We have had senior politicians, starting from D Raja to Suresh Kalmadi in the clinkers.

Even if they do not return successfully to active politics, they have sufficient clout among their tribe to ask them try reform. Instead, they try a ruse to avoid the hardships.

Jain has spent more time in hospitals than in jail which forced the judiciary asking, how come? The way the country’s public anger is shaping up, and is being voiced, it may not be too far -- of course, this is somewhat optimistic -- a lot of the lawmakers may have to make trips to jails. It is in their future interest to change the conditions there.

Or is it -- and this is entirely possible -- that the law-makers who can make a difference to jail conditions get treated differently without people like us knowing about it? We have known cases of Bihar jails allowing the bahubalis to run their businesses from inside, assisted by the jail staff.  Perhaps that explains the poor conditions.

Mahesh Vijapurkar