of prisoners: How modern are our laws?
Hafizur Rahman Karzon
The simple fact
that prisoners are human beings is often lost sight of. The oblivion
of their human identity is not unusual, rather a primitive legacy, which
a society like ours can hardly overcome. State incumbents are not sufficiently
judicious and cordial to formulate a civilized policy to treat the prisoners
a bit humanely. The attitude of the commoners, at the same time, is
not humanitarian enough to furnish them with all basic necessities and
civic amenities, so that they enjoy a human life. This type of common
perception constitutes an attitudinal paradigm of the whole society.
In most of the developed countries there is shift from deterrent, retributive,
and preventive to reformative approach. Their penal policy and prison
system have been structured on the reformative attitude, to give the
offenders an opportunity to rectify themselves. In this context our
penal policy and prison system lag behind not only civilized standard,
but also UN standard.
A number of international instruments have provided for standards for
treatment of prisoners. Among these the most important is the Standard
Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. This Standard Minimum
Rules was adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention
of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders held at Geneva. It was approved
by the Economic and Social Council by its resolutions 663 C (XXIV) of
31 July 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of 13 May 1977.
Standard Minimum Rules enjoins the authority of every prison to keep
a bound Register where the detail particulars of the prisoners will
be recorded. It imposes an obligation to keep different types of prisoners
in different parts of the prison taking account of their sex, age and
criminal record. It requires the prison authority to keep untried prisoners
separately from convicted prisoners, women from men, and young prisoners
from adults. All sleeping accommodation, as per the provision of the
Standard Minimum Rules, shall meet all the requirements of health, due
regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content
of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating, and ventilation. The
windows shall be large enough to enable the prisoners to read or work
by natural light. The sanitary installations shall be adequate to enable
every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and
in a clean and decent manner. Prisoners shall be provided with water
and with such toilet articles as are necessary for health and cleanliness.
Every prisoner shall be provided with an outfit of clothing suitable
for the climate and adequate to keep him/her in good health, and shall
be provided with a separate bed. Every prisoner shall be provided at
the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and
strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served. (Sections
7, 8,10,11, 12, 15, 17,19,and 20 of the Standard Minimum Rules)
rules further provides that prisoners shall be allowed under necessary
supervision to communicate with their family and reputable friends at
regular intervals, both by correspondence and by receiving visits. The
Rules enjoins the prison authority to establish a library for the use
of all categories of prisoners and ensure arrangements so that the prisoners
can perform their religious prayers. (Sections 37, 40, and 41 of the
Standard Minimum Rules.)
and accommodation of prisons in Bangladesh
The zamindars and sultans of Bengal used to detain their enemies in
forts and dungeons. The Afghan rulers built a fort at Chawk Bazar, which
was later on used as central jail of Dhaka. The English rebuilt the
fort in the mid-nineteenth century to accommodate prisoners and they
started to use it as a jail from 1798. Initially it had one criminal
ward. Today, there are 81 jails, among which 9 are central jails, 56
District jails, and 16 are thana jails across the country. According
to a statistics of the first week of September, 2001, there was a total
of 68,405 prisoners in the jails of Bangladesh. Among the prisoners
15,865 were convicts, 47,430 were awaiting trial and 1,203 were detained
under the Special Powers Act, 1974. Unfortunately some prisoners' (awaiting
trial) term of punishment was less than the period they had spent in
Central jails accommodate
convicted prisoners whereas other jails house under-trial prisoners.
Overcrowding is the most acute problem encountered by the inmates, and
it goes, usually, to such an extent the total number of inmates is almost
three times the total accommodation of the jails. Another statistics
of 2001 revealed that all the jails of Bangladesh can accommodate a
maximum number of 24,152 inmates in total. But the jails have to house
68,408 inmates, almost three times the total capacity.
Prisoners have to
sleep in shifts at night because of the overcrowded situation of the
jails. Jail Code allocates a space of 36 square feet for every prisoner,
but prisoners hardly get the space mentioned. The daily Janakantha (April
26, 2000) revealed that each inmate had only one square ft. of standing
space in Naogoan Jail, let alone space for sleeping. Condition of Chittagong
Central Jail is most deplorable as 200 inmates were made to use a single
toilet and water was rationed to one mug per inmate per day.
health and hygiene
Prisoners are served with so low quality of food that they fall sick
after consuming those foods. Chronic blooddysentery has been a common
disease of the prisoners in all the Jails of Bangladesh. Almost all
of them suffer from malnutrition, obviously the inadequate quantity
of food being the reason. The overall condition has negative impact
on the health and hygiene of the prisoners. Most of the jail authorities
in Bangladesh failed to fulfill Minimum Standard set by the UN. They
failed to ensure minimum floor space, lighting, heating, and ventilation
inside the prisons. Because of the low quality food, inadequate water
supply, unhygienic toilet, and damp environment inmates suffer from
various diseases like indigestion, diarrhea, dysentery, and skin disease.
The attached hospitals of the jails do not have sufficient medical facilities,
sometimes seriously ill patients have died due to lack of transport
facilities when they are brought from Jail to the hospital.
of jail authority
Corruption has become a common phenomenon of all the Jails of Bangladesh.
The food, clothing etc. allocated to every prisoner do not reach in
their hands due to the misappropriation of the prison authority. They
create artificial scarcity and turn prisoners' right and basic needs
into rare commodities, which one can buy with cash payment. If anyone
visits prison, s/he will find inadequacy of food, and other necessary
elements, but financially capable prisoners enjoy all types of facilities
remaining incarcerated within the boundary of the prison. All types
of narcotics and deadly weapons are available within the prison and
rich and influential prisoners can buy them in exchange for cash payment.
in the prison
Every year more than hundred people die because of various diseases,
and lack of proper treatment. 30 convicted prisoners and 87 detainees
died in 2002, and 73 convicted prisoners and 37 detainees died in 2003.
A human life cannot be compensated in exchange of anything, whereas
every year more than hundred lives are falling into the jaws of death,
posing a question mark against our growing democracy. Their death puts
us at the dock, guilty feelings started to devour us.
of this unfortunate and avoidable death and terrible sufferings, the
prisoners often revolt against the prison authority. After the establishment
of Bangladesh, from 1976 to till now the prisoners revolted 25 times
against the prison authority. Prisoners want to be purged of abnormal
death and sufferings. They want the Minimum Standard Rules should be
implemented and the civic amenities required to sustain as a human being
should be ensured for every prisoner.
brief appraisal of the prison condition in Bangladesh
The simple fact that a prisoner is a human being is often forgotten.
The penal policy of Bangladesh is a combination of retributive and deterrent
theories, which the English colonial ruler formulated to serve the purpose
of a colony. We, unfortunately, did not revise the policy to square
it with the situation of an independent country. Developed countries
adopted reformative theory to fortify human values into their democratic
polity, whereas we kept the colonial penal policy intact, throwing basic
human rights of the prisoners in the wilderness. The typical mindset
of the commoners of this country, unfortunately, favours the existing
penal policy, indicating our attitude lagging far behind the civilised
When any individual
is put within the bars of the prison, it does not mean that s/he lost
his/her identity. They have been deprived of their valuable right, freedom
of movement. So long s/he possesses human identity s/he has the right
to have all the basic necessities and civic amenities ensured by the
Constitution and also by the Standard Minimum Rules of UN. The under-trial
prisoners and prisoners awaiting trial in no way should be subjected
to deprivation of basic citizen's rights. Even the convicted prisoners
cannot be deprived of their right to food, clothing, health, hygiene,
and medication. Incarcerating convicts within the four boundaries of
the prison is rigorous punishment for them. If their basic necessities
are not sufficiently fulfilled, that becomes brutal embodiment of hell
on this earth.
Sir Winston Churchill once said that, "the mood and temper of the
public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the
most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country". I want
to invoke another two criterion, together with Churchill's touchstone,
to measure the civilised standard of any country. Those are, first,
how women and children are treated in a society and second, whether
minorities are well-protected in that society. If we ask ourselves these
questions, the answers will not be very satisfactory.
Hafizur Rahman Karzon is a Lecturer, Department of Law, Dhaka University.