THE NEED FOR OPEN PRISONS IN LIGHT OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

INTRODUCTION                          

An open prison is understood as any penal establishment where prisoners have minimal restrictions and supervision. It is a humane system based on the reformative theory of justice and the idea that trust begets trust. The purpose of rehabilitation and reformation is often defeated by the prison environment and treatment meted out to prisoners in conventional prison facilities. Open prisons are based on the idea that the fundamental rights of prisoners are not eclipsed during incarceration. It is based on two of the dictums of Sir Alexander Paterson – First, a man is sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment, and second, that one cannot train a man for freedom unless the conditions of his captivity and the restraints are considerably relaxed. The need for having such correctional institutions was first recognized in the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders held in Geneva in 1955.

NEED FOR OPEN PRISONS IN THE LIGHT OF COVID-19 PANDEMIC

The need for open prisons has been necessitated by the alarming issue of overcrowding in Indian jails. According to NCRB data, as of 31 December 2018, the prison inmate population was 4, 66,084 as against an official capacity of 3, 96,223 inmates. The increase in prison capacity was 15,347, while the number of prisoners increased by 33,081. This situation became even more concerning with the advent of the COVID – 19 pandemic, which mandated the practice of social distancing. The inability to do so led to prisons becoming hotspots for the pandemic. Moreover, the overcrowding also severely restricts the availability of healthcare and sanitation facilities. The Prison Statistics India Report of 2019 highlights that due to poor healthcare and sanitation, 1775 prisoners died of various illnesses. The make-do approach followed by the prison authorities in the time of this crisis further exacerbated the situation. In the name of decongestion, prisoners were transferred to less crowded prisons in far-off areas, which was in clear violation of Rule 59 of Nelson Mandela Rules which prescribe that must be kept in prisons close to their families to ensure they can maintain social relations. It must also be highlighted that the release of prisoners on bail or parole and their transfer did not take place according to their susceptibility to catching the virus but rather on the basis of their ‘dangerousness’ by ranking them based on the seriousness of their offence. Furthermore, there was a lack of a separate database about the release of female prisoners, which was very important as many of them had children below the age of 6 years living with them.

SOCIO-ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF OPEN PRISONS

Open prisons have socio-economic advantages for both the states and the inmates. We shall delve deeper into this aspect by looking at the case study of an open prison at Sanganer in Rajasthan. The prison there has no bars or walls, and the prisoners are encouraged to go out and work every day. The prisoners are allotted a house and have stable lives with jobs and education for their children. Open prisons are extremely resource and cost-efficient. In a comparative study between Sanganer Open prison and the closed prison in Jaipur, it was found that the open prison was 78 times cheaper than the closed prison with a per prisoner cost of Rs 500 per month as opposed to Rs 7094 per month at the closed prison. The study also revealed that open prisons could solve the problem of overcrowding of prisons. Most jails comprise 70 per cent of undertrials and 30 per cent of convicts. Sending undertrials to open prisons will help us to deal more efficiently with issues of overcrowding, custodial violence, and denial of basic amenities. Open prisons can also prove instrumental in reducing the rate of recidivism. The increasing rate of recidivism is primarily attributed to the inability to reintegrate the prisoners into the society, which leads to frustration among them post-release. Recidivism is mainly due to the stigma attached to convicts and the hardships faced by them in securing employment.

Open prisons can help address this issue by encouraging the prisoners to take up work in rural public works and allowing them to stay with their families. For example, in the open prison at Sanganer, the prisoners are allowed to go out within a radius of 10 km between 6 am and 7 pm. It not only helps them learn vocational skills that they may pursue upon release, but the gainful work at open prisons also keeps them mentally engaged and helps boost their self-esteem and confidence. Open prisons prove particularly beneficial for old-age prisoners who have often been neglected by their families and are incapable of fending for them by helping them transition to normal life. It also prevents families from getting devastated, where the sole breadwinner has been given a sentence, by allowing them to stay together and earn a livelihood. During cataclysmic times and public health emergencies like the COVID – 19 pandemic, open prisons can prove to be a gamechanger. Considering the fact that our prisons are woefully overcrowded and incapable of providing proper health care and sanitation facilities to such a huge inmate population, expansion of open prisons and shifting the prisoners into these open institutions is an appropriate strategy.

CONCLUSION

During the research I realized how the pandemic has brought into focus the need to set up more open prisons. This is primarily due to the problem of overcrowding in prisons which made social distancing extremely difficult, and the lack of healthcare and sanitation facilities in prisons. The  p make-do approach followed by the prison authorities in these cataclysmic times is extremely problematic as it fails to solve the intended issue of mitigating the risk of a COVID outbreak in prisons. The case study of one such open prison in Sanganer, Rajasthan clearly shows the advantages of expanding open prisons in India and how such prisons are not only less resource intensive but also provide for easy reintegration of the prisoners into society. They offer the convicts the opportunity to live with their families, learn vocational skills and become gainfully employed while also reducing the rate of recidivism. Thus, I believe that open prison can be a very effective way of safeguarding the basic human rights of the prisoners which are not eclipsed upon their incarceration.

Author(s) Name: Archita Mathur (West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata)

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