NEW DELHI: In a stern message that dignity of an individual is not a plaything for those in authority, the Supreme Court Friday asked all high courts to register a suo motu petition to identify kin of prisoners who admittedly died an unnatural death after 2012 and award suitable compensation to them and establish open prisons as a measure to usher in reforms for inmates and to also prevent overcrowding.
Relying on National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data between 2012 to 2015, a bench of justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta passed a slew of directions on jail reforms and directed all states to appoint counselors and support persons for counselling prisoners, particularly first-time offenders.
Stating that custodial death is a crime and such incidents indicate the apparent disdain of the state to the life and liberty of prisoners, the bench said, “We request the Chief Justice of the high court to register a suo motu public interest litigation with a view to identify the next of kin of prisoners who have admittedly died an unnatural death as revealed by the NCRB during the period between 2012 and 2015 and even thereafter and award suitable compensation, unless adequate compensation has already been awarded.”
“The constitutional courts can go on delivering judgment after judgment on this issue and award compensation, but unless the state realises that custodial death is itself a crime and monetary compensation is not necessarily the only appropriate relief that can be granted to the next of kin of the deceased, such unnatural deaths will continue unabated,” the bench said.
It also directed all states to examine the availability of medical assistance to prisoners and take remedial steps wherever necessary. The bench asked the secretary general of the apex court to sent a copy of its verdict to the registrar general of every high court within a week.
“If the fundamental right to life and liberty was to be given its true meaning, the Centre and the state governments must accept the reality and not proceed on the basis that prisoners could be treated as chattel,” the bench observed in its 43-page judgment.
The court also directed the Ministry of Women and Child Development to discuss with the officials concerned of the state governments and formulate procedures for tabulating the number of children (if any) who suffer an unnatural death in child care institutions where they are kept in custody either because they are in conflict with the law or because they need care and protection. The court observed that unless the state changes its mindset and takes steps to give meaning to life and liberty of every prisoner, jail reforms could never be effective.
The court directed the Centre to ensure circulation of its model prison manual, a monograph prepared by the National Human Rights Commission on suicides in prisons, and the Nelson Mandela Rules and guidelines on investigating deaths in custody issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross within one month to prison incharges of every states.
It asked the states to conduct training and sensitisation programmes for senior police officers of all prisons on their functions, duties and responsibilities and the rights and duties of prisoners. The bench directed the government to consider extending the time or frequency of meetings by the family of a prisoner and explore the possibility of using phones and video conferencing for communication, also with their counsel.
It asked the states to conduct a study on overall conditions in jails and the facilities available. It also said that suggestions regarding establishment of open jails was certainly worth considering by states. The bench is hearing a 2013 PIL on prevailing inhuman conditions in 1,382 prisons across the country.