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September 12, 2004

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Treatment of prisoners: How modern are our laws?

Sheikh 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.

International 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.

This 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)

Standard minimum 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.)

History 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 jail.

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.

Food, 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.

Corruption 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.

Death 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.

Because 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.

A 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 standard.

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.

Concluding remark
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.

Sheikh Hafizur Rahman Karzon is a Lecturer, Department of Law, Dhaka University.

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