Reforming Prisoners through Open Prisons

M. K Sharma
It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones. This declaration of Nelson Mandela echoes that true social justice will only be realized in a society which respects and ensures basic human dignity and human rights for all persons including those incarcerated. The literature on prison justice and prison reforms shows that there are nine major problems which affect the prison system and which need immediate attention. These are: (1) overcrowding; (2) delay in trial; (3) torture and ill treatment; (4) neglect of health and hygiene; (5) insubstantial food and inadequate clothing; (6) prison vices; (7) deficiency in communication; (8) streamlining of jail visits; and (9) management of open air prisons.
J&K Legal Service Authority under the patronage of Justice Pankaj Mithal, Chief Justice, High Court of J&K and Ladakh and the dynamic guidance of Justice Ali Mohammad Magrey, Executive Chairman has been working consistently and innovatively hard to provide legal assistance not only to the prisoners but also to the dependents of the prisoners but one area which requires urgent attention of the Govt. of UT of J&K is reformation of the prisoners with the establishment of “Open Air Prisons”.
In this article I wish to propose the establishment of Open Air Prisons, which themselves would take care of other problems noted above. So, the theme of this article is to see the prison and prisoners in a different light. “Open Air Prison” as the term goes means prison without walls, bars and locks. The jail does not confine them completely but requires them to earn their living to support their families, living with them inside the jail. Open prisons have relatively less stringent rules as compared to the controlled jails. The fundamental rule of an open prison is that the jail has minimum security and functions on the self discipline of the inmates.
Open prisons were developed in the United States in 19th Century to rehabilitate prisoners who had almost completed their sentence. The prisoners nearing release were sent to work as labourers to evaluate their behavior. The concept of open prisons was then developed in the UK in the 1930″s and was based on the idea of ‘carrots’ rather than ‘sticks’. The subject of open prison was largely discussed in the first United Nation Congress on Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders held in Geneva in 1955, followed by second meetingin London in 1960. Even our great sociologist Manu highlighted that even the hardest of the hard offenders shouldn’t be punished in discriminately, this can make the person more dangerous to society. Effective and efficient measures should be taken to make them law abiding citizens of the society.
The All India Committee on Jail Reforms constituted in 1980 recommended the Government to setup and develop open prisons in each state and Union Territory. Prisons in India are governed by the Prisons Act 1900 and each state follows their prison rules and manuals. In India first open prison was established in 1953 in U.P. where housed prisoners were requisition to construct a dam over the river Chandraprabha in Varanasi. Now, on the basis of recommendations of the Jail Reform Committees and directions of the Apex Court, open jails are functioning in 17 states in India. There are currently 69 open jails, of which, 29 open jails are in Rajasthan and 13 in Maharashtra. In Rajasthan more than 2000 prisoners of 29 jails work as accountants, school teachers, guards and domestic help. These are some of the people who serve their sentence for offences like murder, theft etc.
Study of criminology describes various theories of punishment suchas deterrent, retributive, preventive but the most useful is considered as reformative theory. In this, prisoners are transformed into law abiding citizens of the society, so that after their release they can be useful to society and not a burden or repeat offenders. This theory of punishment is considered to be new and most effective. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, popularly known as Nelson Mandela Rules, laid down the objectives of open prisons stating that such prisons provide no physical security against escape but rely on self discipline of inmates, provide the conditions most favorable to the rehabilitation of carefully selected prisoners.
Ostensibly, a sound prison system with open air prisons is a crying need of the UT of J&K in the backdrop of increase in the number of prisoners and that too of various types and from different strata of society. The establishment of “Open Air Prisons” would not only reduce the overcrowding but will also dilute the scope of torture and ill will provide homely food and proper clothing. Moreover, it will reduce the prison vices and will reduce the financial burden on the exchequer of the state. Needless to underscore that human dignity is paramount and setting up of Open Air Prisons will usher in a new dawn which will end the gloom cast on the faces of prisoners. Let’s hope a new awakening percolate every prison wall.
(The author is Member Secretary, J&K Legal Services Authority).