As human rights organization, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) believes it is imperative to work on prisoners’ rights, because, in order to reduce crime, society must take a two-pronged approach to solve their problems. First of all, it must work to counter the socio-economic conditions that contribute to crime. The CSJ’s work in prisons shows that most of the prisoners come from poor and vulnerable communities. And secondly, society must extend all possible help and cooperation to enable an offender to return to the community from which she or he belonged as a law-abiding citizen. This must include a programme for the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners. Working out systematic procedures, the government can delegate some basic functions of treatment to community groups and volunteers.
With this aim in view, the CSJ undertook following activities towards ensuring rights to the prisoners:
Due to delays in procedures, many under-trials spend more time in prison than they would have had to had they been convicted. In an effort to ensure the right of every individual to fair trial, the CSJ set up a system of providing free legal aid to prisoners. It was given permission to start work in jails to facilitate the release of under-trial prisoners accused of bailable offences.
The CSJ realized that the main reason for bailable prisoners remaining behind the bars is because of their inability to procure a surety or a bail. Most of these prisoners are poor and cannot produce bail. The CSJ introduced the concept of personal bond as per the guidelines of the Supreme Court to enable the poor prisoners to pay bail. Initially, the lower judiciary resisted the effort, but today the concept is well accepted. In many cases, judges themselves ask lawyers to file a personal bond application for those in need.
The CSJ was invited by Gujarat’s jail minister to assist in the jail reforms process. It initiated a task force comprising of people from jail, lawyers and the judiciary. The task force submitted a report on the possibility of jail reforms in Gujarat. Several of the recommendations of the committee are being implemented today, including the Lok Adalats, mobile courts, availability of free legal aid, and so on.
The jail staff was sensitized to the issue of under-trials and advised of possible remedies. During an interaction with the Vadodara jail superintendent, the CSJ was told that a prison worked to identify prisoners who kept languishing in the prison longer than their due time. These cases were brought to the notice of the committee which is supposed to visit the jail every month to assess overcrowding.
Currently, the CSJ operates in 12 jails in Gujarat.
Paralegal Training in Prisons
The concept of paralegal training in prisons came from the realization of the difficulties faced by prisoners in getting legal support. To address this need, the CSJ developed a paralegal training programme in prisons, so that persons from within the prison can look after the legal needs of other prisoners. The programme was sponsored by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
The main objectives of the programme was to:
- Raise awareness regarding law and prisoners’ rights
- Raise awareness among prisoners
- Develop skill of filling up bail/bond application forms for themselves and others
- Perform the role of a prisoner’s rights watch agency by establishing a linkage between the working group on prisoner’s rights, the CSJ and the prison
- Empower prisoners to challenge the situations of injustice and encroachment of rights inside the prison
- Implement the recommendations of the NGOs’ Task Force on Prison Welfare
- Implement the recommendations of the NHRC on Prison Welfare
- Monitor the nexus between the police, judiciary and the jail
At the same time, interventions were made to ensure that the prison officials became accustomed with a system under which under-trails are allowed to be interviewed by prison paralegals, Efforts were made to ensure that prison paralegals have access to the prison office, and they are allowed to work for raising awareness among the under-trails about the activities of the paralegals in prison. Simultaneously, prison paralegals should be granted freedom to approach the CSJ or its working groups on prisoners’ rights in the event of legal problems or human rights violation inside the prison.
Following roles were identified for prison paralegals:
- Generate awareness among prisoners regarding their rights and laws pertaining to their welfare
- Aid in writing applications for bail, confession, personal bond and the like
- Monitor on the implementation of the Jail Manual rules
- Refer legal and human rights violation incidents to working group on prisoners’ rights or to the CSJ.