It took the National Investigation Agency (NIA) 22 days to provide a straw and sipper to 83-year-old activist Fr. Stan Swamy who is currently lodged in Tajola Prison, Navi Mumbai. Swamy, a Parkinson’s Disease patient, is detained under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. Only after a special court in Mumbai intervened, did prison authorities assist Swamy.
As of 2019, 4,78,600 individuals are in prisons across India. Of these, 63,336 are above the age of 50. Only 1,962 medical personnel were posted across jails in India in 2019. Prisoners are routinely subject to violence, exploitation and negligence.
The condition of prisoners was arguably worse in colonial India. Prisoners were force-fed, exploited, tortured and made to undergo ad-hoc solitary confinement. Many prisoners launched individual resistance movement whilst in prison. Nanibala Devi a freedom fighter went on a hunger strike in response to being tortured and built prisoner solidarity. In 1929, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru along with 21 others went on a 166-day hunger strike in Mianwali Central Jail. These resistance movements demanded equal treatment, adequate food, clothing, books, newspapers and hygienic prison conditions.
The British government was aware of the dismal state of prisons and attempted prison reform. The first comprehensive exercise to study prison administration in India was undertaken by the All-India Jail Committee (1919-1920). The report recommended several measures which included the adoption of reformation and rehabilitation as principles of prison administration.
However, with the enactment of the Government of India Act, 1935, prison administration was converted into a provincial subject. So, the report’s recommendations were not uniformly implemented. The Constitution of India 1950 too gave only state legislatures the power to make laws on prisons.
Re-collecting their experiences in prison, some Constituent Assembly members were not keen to include a provision on preventive detention in the Constitution; Mahavir Tyagi wanted adequate safeguards to prevent misuse of restrictions on the right to protection of life and personal liberty under the Constitution.
Despite Court judgements and legislation affirming prisoner rights, a vast number of prisoners continue to suffer from violence and inhumane conditions. Kafeel Khan, whilst in Mathura Prison, in a public letter describing the prison said "In a jail made for 534 inmates, there are 1,600 people kept with one barrack holding at least 100-125 of us. There are just 4-6 toilets". Fyodor Dostoevsky felt that "the degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons." By this measure, what can we say about the Indian republic?