When we’re beaten up by a gang member or an inmate who has good connections with the staff, we’re scared to raise the issue with the warden. They (staff) would either beat us up or issue a punishment ticket so that we take back our complaint,” said an inmate serving a life sentence in Delhi’s Mandoli jail.
As per the latest national data, Tihar prison complex in Delhi witnessed the maximum number of ‘clashes’ (57) between the prisoners and the staff in 2019. These instances of violence within the jail premises resulted in the death of three prisoners, while 279 inmates and 37 jail officials received severe injuries. The data clearly illustrates that the clashes are a recurring feature of the correctional administration in Delhi. While the central government has consistently attributed prison violence to security threats posed by certain categories of prisoners, the Delhi government has ignored the need to look into the administrative, behavioural, and psycho-social issues that induce tensions in prisoner-staff relationships.
Both the judiciary and the executive have adopted a limited and linear approach towards the issue of prisoner-staff violence in Delhi prisons. It reflects a lack of commitment towards meaningful prison reforms in Indian penal policymaking. With the institutional response skewed towards further tightening of security and surveillance, an independent, holistic and multidimensional inquiry into various factors that contribute to the escalation of tensions between the prisoners and the staff is required. And it won’t be possible without a decentralised approach that involves both the prisoners and the staff in the discourse on improving the prison administration.
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Importance of prisoner-staff relations
Empirical research has shown that fairness and legitimacy are significant factors in the evaluation of life inside a prison, with a critical bearing on maintenance of order. Most prisoners identify the staff-prisoner relationship – how jail officials use their discretionary authority – as the most important component while evaluating the fairness of their treatment. These studies also reiterate that the concept of ‘fairness’ has become socially unpopular and politically unacceptable because it’s often mistaken for laxity.
Another factor that contributes to the maintenance of order inside a prison is the control strategies adopted by the staff. Researchers have identified the ability of staff members to diffuse tensions and minimise the possibility of friction as a good strategy that brings humanity and dignity to both the staff and the prisoners. Identification of “friction points” (searches, escorting to lockup, etc.) and careful response in such situations are pivotal in curbing instances of assault. Therefore, the training, age and experience of prison staff are pertinent in preparing their response to such friction points. The overemphasis of the training and officer socialisation programmes on security dimensions, detachment, over-caution and aversion towards engaging with prisoners, create difficulties in sustaining positive prisoner-staff relationships.
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Institutional response to prisoner-staff violence in Delhi prisons
The institutional approach is dominated by two issues: security and surveillance. This approach has failed to constructively engage the prisoners and the staff in the reform process. It has restricted itself to responding to isolated instances of violence with the ‘fact-finding’ perspective, instead of systemically analysing the causes with a reform perspective.
The security approach is predominantly reflected in the policy decisions of the central government. The Ministry of Home Affairs, the central agency for issuing advisories on prison reforms, has consistently invisibilised the perceptions of prisoners while addressing the issue of violence inside prisons. There has been no advisory from the Home Ministry directing the state governments to mandate independent inquiries into instances of prisoner-staff violence. Rather, the three advisories issued in 1998, 2006, and 2015 have recommended the tightening of security arrangements. These advisories follow a common narrative of ‘laxity of security arrangements in jail’ as a cause of instances of violence behind bars. Moreover, instead of promoting greater transparency and participation of prisoners in the discourse on prisoner-staff relationships, the advisories ask the states to prohibit prisoner interviews, calling them ‘glamorisation of criminals.’
These policy decisions also reflect the punitive ideology of the State. The terms used to describe prisoners (criminals, terrorists, extremists, militants, and underworld elements) reflect the negligible interest of the State in the reformative ideal and in respecting the concerns of the prisoners. Even the Prison Statistics of India report attributes the causes of prison violence entirely to prisoners who ‘breach the peace inside the jail’ and ‘tend to commit offences habitually’.
The other dominating approach involves recourse to surveillance. In 1986, the central government had constituted a Special Group under the chairmanship of R.K. Kapoor to review multiple aspects of prison administration, especially in the context of security and discipline. The Special Group recommended wide surveillance through CCTV cameras, watchtowers, wire fencing, raising of the height of perimeter walls, metal detectors, dog squads, etc. as a solution. In 2010, the MHA released an advisory titled ‘Best Prison Practices’, which reiterated the CCTV surveillance system as the most significant for ensuring prison security and discipline.
The judicial response has also been disproportionately focused on surveillance and not on qualitative factors that induce tensions between the prisoners and the staff. In Dilip Kumar Basu v. State of West Bengal, the Supreme Court, while directing state governments to install CCTV cameras at various places in the prison complexes, noted that CCTV surveillance will ‘go a long way’ in preventing the human rights abuses of the incarcerated population. But the actual figures of reported incidents of violence inside the prisons continue to tell a different story.
On 4 December 2020, the Delhi High Court ordered a summary inquiry into the allegations of abuse made by certain inmates in a high-security jail of Tihar prison complex. The order of inquiry was granted after the state failed to provide any CCTV footage with respect to the incident, claiming that the cameras were non-functional at the time due to some ‘technical fault’. This was the third time in as many years that the Delhi High Court had emphasised upon CCTV surveillance to address allegations of violence inside Tihar prison. In all instances, the state failed to produce CCTV footage. Moreover, the court addressed the three instances from a ‘fact-finding’ perspective, restricting itself to determining the culprit and not addressing the systemic issues that contribute to such recurrent instances of prisoner-staff violence. The need to approach the issue from a policy reform perspective was completely overlooked.
The fact-finding committees constituted by the Delhi High Court in cases alleging violence by prison staff also identified independent monitoring of the surveillance system as a fundamental solution. The only exception is a three-member committee headed by Justice Brijesh Sethi, which was constituted in the case of Chinmaya Kanojia v. Tihar Prison. Apart from recommending independent monitoring and management of CCTV footage, the committee also identified the language barrier between the prisoners and the staff as a contributor to tensions. It noted that since the high-security prison is guarded by officers of Tamil Nadu Special Police Force, there’s a language barrier between the guards and the prisoners. This leads to misunderstandings in communication, which then aggravates hostility.
The committee also recommended proper training of staff members on the prison rules, and restrain from using force while handling prisoners. It’s been more than two years since the committee submitted its report to the Delhi High Court in a sealed cover. However, no decision has been taken on either the scrutiny or the implementation of the recommendations.
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Decentralise the discourse
To identify sociological, psychological, and administrative factors that fuel tensions in the prison environment, the discourse on prison reforms needs to be decentralised. This decentralised approach will engage both the prisoners and the staff and foreground their perspectives in policymaking within the prisons. Research done by British criminologist and academic Alison Liebling has shown that following an appreciative inquiry, which engages both the prisoners and the staff on the issue of positively improving the prison administration, can help improve the moral performance of a prison.
The decentralised approach shall also be multi-dimensional in nature, giving adequate attention to diverse intangible factors that influence the relationship between the prisoners and the staff. It will create an environment where all the stakeholders will feel more participative, and consequently responsible, for policy decisions that have a direct impact on their life inside the prison.
The author is an independent researcher and writer in the field of criminal justice. He was formerly an associate editor and Delhi court correspondent for Live Law. Views are personal.