National Consultation on Prison Legal Aid

National Consultation on Prison Legal Aid 13th -14th April’13 Background Overcrowding, understaffing, lack of adequate medical care, physical mistreatment of prisoners resulting in custodial deaths, inadequate conditions for female and juvenile detainees, poor administration, long detention of those awaiting trial, and inadequate opportunities for prisoners to communicate with counsel, administrators, and family are some of the plaguing problems inside the jails. The intolerable conditions of prisons compound the misery of prisoners. Torture is widespread in prisons and police lock ups. Corruption is rampant. The 2011 report of the National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, reports overcrowding in a large majority of jails, some operating at over 200 percent of their available capacity, with undertrials accounting for up to two-thirds of the prison population. The central jails are overcrowded by 118.6 percent, while the district jails are overcrowded by 126.9 percent. The maximum number of overcrowding is recorded in Chhattisgarh to 256.3 percent, Uttar Pradesh 175.1 percent, Maharashtra and Jharkhand upto 128.1 percent, followed by Assam, West Bengal and Bihar recording 109.6 percent, 94.4 percent and 83 percent respectively (Prison Statics India, 2011, National Crime Record Bureau: i). The highest number of undertrials languishing in jails has been recorded in Uttar Pradesh, followed by Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Jharkhand(Prison Statics India, 2011, National Crime Record Bureau: i). Out of the whole prison population only 20% prisoners are convicts, while the rest are under-trials. Thousands of poor persons including dalits, Muslims, women and juveniles languish in the jails and police lockups, without due process of law. Women with children and the mentally ill are among the worst-affected groups. According to available statistics, 1,400 children younger than five are accompanying their mothers in jails. The absence of adequate medical and psychiatric services, contributes to the deplorable conditions. Individuals with severe mental illnesses, branded as “non-criminal lunatics,” are often imprisoned. With many mentally vulnerable prisoners left to suffer without support in a brutal environment, there is a high rate of suicides of prison inmates and police detainees. In the 1980s, the All India Commission for Jail Reforms (The “Mulla” Commission) found that the majority of the prison population was from a “rural and agricultural background” and that first time offenders involved in “technical or minor violations of law” accounted for a large number of prisoners. Many inmates were imprisoned for non-payment of fines or because there was no one to bail them out, even if the bail amount was a paltry Rs. 500, or due to inability to afford good legal representation. As a result, first time offenders or persons held for petty crimes spent years, sometimes decades in the company of hardened criminals. Due to the various factors mentioned above, the poor prisoners in India face a very tough challenge in securing their basic human rights, and surviving with dignity inside the prison premises. Legal aid services Though legal aid is a right of every citizen of India, but it is far from the reality. The legal rights entitled to needy under-trials have been mandated by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has laid down that Article 21 of the Constitution of India – the Right to Life – mandates that every indigent accused has the right to free legal aid from the point of arrest (D.K. Basu vs. State of West Bengal, AIR 1997 SC 610). Though in reality legal aid is only provided at the time of trial. Legal Aid is widely perceived as a privilege rather than a matter of right. The state funded legal aid programme is organized under the Legal Aid Services Authorities Act, 1987. Under this Act the National Legal Aid Board has been set up by the Central Government and State Legal Aid Boards have been set up in each state. These boards are mandated to provide free legal aid to poor and needy. But these boards have been largely inefficient in dealing with burgeoning number of cases. Though each person is entitled to free legal aid from the point of arrest, this objective is not achieved many times, due to the lack of awareness on the part of the accused/victim, and the lack of initiative and coordination between the police and the legal aid authorities. Objectives The Human Rights Law Network proposes to hold a two dayNational Consultation on 9th and 10th of March 2013 on Prison Reforms and legal aid to address the above stated issues and to achieve the following objectives: Advocate towards making the legal aid system in prisons more effective and efficient; Reform prison management, prison conditions, enhance transparency and accountability, and foster an attitude of cooperation between the various stakeholders; Build partnerships and a network of prison reform activists that will bring in lawyers, activists, NGOs working with prisoners, academics, journalists, and other concerned members of the civil society towards achieving the above stated objectives. The said national consultation is proposed to be organized in collaboration with Open Society Foundation, National Human Rights Commission, Bureau of Police Research & Development, CHRI, MARG and Prison Ministry of India and other such organizations