Undertrial prisoners should not suffer because of poverty, says SC

New Delhi, Feb 5 (IANS) The Supreme Court on Friday said undertrial prisoners who are not accused of non-bailable offences should be released at the earliest and those faced with distressed financial conditions should not suffer incarceration just on account of it.

“…the undertrial prisoners are released at the earliest and those who cannot furnish bail bonds due to their poverty are not subjected to incarceration only for that reason,” said a bench of Justice Madan B. Lokur and Justice R.K.Agrawal in their order.

The court direction came on a PIL on the inhuman condition prevailing in 1,382 prisons in India, based on June 13, 2013 letter by the former chief justice R.C.Lahoti drawing the apex court’s attention to the situation.

Justice Lahoti’s letter addressed to the then Chief Justice Altamas Kabir was based on the report in a national Hindi newspaper and was registered as a PIL by the apex court on July 5, 2013.

Issuing six direction for easing overcrowding of prisons across the country, the court noted that as of December 31, 2014, the number of prisoners in the central prisons were 184,386 which was far in excess of their capacity to lodge 152,312. Similarly in district jails, the actual prisoners were 179,695 which was 44,256 prisoners more than their capacity of 135,439.

While in central jails, the undertrials comprised 95,519 or 51.8 percent of the inmates, in district jails, their number were 143,138 or 79.7 percent.

Noting that as far as overcrowding of the prisons was concerned, despite several efforts, there was “no perceptible” change, the court said: “In fact the problem of overcrowding has perhaps been accentuated with the passage of time.”

It directed the district level Under Trial Review Committees (UTRC) to look for the effective implementation of the Criminal Procedure Code’s section 436, providing for grant of bail without surety, and section 436A, providing for the release of an undertrial who had already undergone half of the sentence for the offence he has been accused of.

The UTRC, the court said would also look into the implementation of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958 “particularly with regard to first time offenders so that they have a chance of being restored and rehabilitated in society”.

Giving detailed directions as to how the UTRC and the District Legal Services Committee would work to ensure the release of undertrial prisoners as per law, the court asked the union home ministry to conduct an annual review of the implementation of the Model Prison Manual 2016.

“The Model Prison Manual 2016 should not be reduced to yet another document that might be reviewed only decades later, if at all. The annual review will also take into consideration the need, if any, of making changes therein,” the court directed.

Besides this, the court said that “it appears advisable and necessary to ensure that a similar manual is prepared in respect of juveniles who are in custody either in observation homes or special homes or places of safety in terms of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015”.

Issuing notice to the secretary, women and child development ministry, it said that the manual to be prepared by it would take into consideration the living conditions and other issues relating to juveniles who are in such places.

Directing the notice returnable on March 14, the court said other issues relating to prison reforms particularly those relating to unnatural deaths in jails, inadequacy of staff and training of staff would be considered on the next date of hearing.

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