Supreme Court's Role In The Protection Of Human Rights Of Prisoners

KEY TAKEAWAYS

A prisoner is an individual who is restrained from enjoying his/her liberty and captured in a prison or is under detention as a punishment of committing a crime. However, being a convict or undertrial does not reject the need for human rights for their survival and protection of life. Other than the basic human needs, which have now been included in the area of right to life under the Indian constitution due to the verdicts passed in the Supreme Court, right to life also allows a person to avail the guarantee of protection in cases of criminal justice administration.

ROLE OF SUPREME COURT IN PROTECTION OF HUMAN RIGHTS OF PRISONERS

The Supreme Court in the recent past has been observant against violation of human rights of prisoners. An attempt is being made to elaborate the provisions of their rights of by invoking the fundamental rights of prisoners, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of India. Article 21 of the Constitution says 'No person shall be deprived of his life and Personal Liberty except according to procedure established by law”. The right to Life and Personal Liberty is the mainstay of the Human Rights in India. Through its efficacious approach and activism, the Indian judiciary has served as an institution for providing fruitful remedy against the violations of Human Rights.

The Supreme Court of India has considerably expanded the scope of Article 21 and has held that its protection will be obtainable for safeguarding the fundamental rights of the prisoners and for effecting prison reforms. The Supreme Court, by developing its interpretation of Article 21, guarantees the Right to Life and Personal liberty as the reservoir of prisoners’ rights. Under Schedule VII of the Constitution of the India, the prison administration, police and law and order are to be administered by the respective states. The states have usually disposed low priority to prison administration. In fact, some of the decisions made by the Supreme Court on prison administration have served as eye–openers for the administrators and directed the states to renovate prison administration.

The Human Rights saviour Supreme Court has worked towards the protection of prisoners from all types of torture. The judiciary has taken a lead to widen the scope of Right to Life and Personal liberty. An attempt has been taken to analyse the new aspects given by the Supreme Court to Article 21 through Public Interest Litigation to safeguard the fundamental freedom of the individuals who are destitute, illiterate and ignorant. Public Interest Litigation has become a focal point to set the judicial process in motion for the protection of the residuary rights of prisoners.

The Supreme Court has developed Human Rights jurisprudence for the preservation and protection of prisoners’ Right to Human Dignity. The concern of the Apex judiciary is evident from the various primary judicial decisions. The Supreme Court of India in various cases has taken a critical note of the inhuman treatment on prisoners and has issued appropriate directions to prison and police authorities for safeguarding the rights of the prisoners and persons in police custody. The Court has read the right against torture into Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution, observing that 'the treatment of a human being which offends human dignity, imposes avoidable torture and reduces the man to the level of a beast would certainly be arbitrary and can be questioned under Article 14.”

The court has directed the Government to take required steps to educate the police so as to inculcate a respect for a human person. In the case of Kishore Singh v. State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court stressed upon the deep concern for human rights against police cruelty, and observed the following:

'Nothing is more cowardly and unconscionable than a person in police custody being beaten up and nothing inflicts a deeper wound on our Constitutional culture that a state official running berserk regardless of Human Rights.”

The court also promptly ordered that the inhuman treatment meted to the accused in police custody is ‘a gross and blatant violation of human rights.’ In the absence of any legislative or executive directives and guidelines, the court has undertaken an activist role and ruled in many such cases, one of those cases being D.K.Basu v. State of West Bengal. While dealing with the case, the court specifically focused on the problem of custodial torture and issued a number of guidelines to eradicate this evil, for better protection and promotion of human rights. In the said case, the Supreme Court defined torture and analysed its implications. The observations of the court on torture are valuable and worth quoting at length.

'Custodial torture is a naked violation of human dignity and degradation which destroys, to a very large extent, the individual personality. It is a calculated assault on human dignity and whenever human dignity is wounded, civilisation takes a step backward – flag of humanity myst on each such occasion fly half-mast.”

Judicial conscience realised that human rights of prisoners are equally essential because of its reformistic approach and belief that convicts are also human beings, and that the purpose of imprisonment is to reform them rather than to turn them into hardened criminals. Regarding the treatment of prisoners, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 states that 'No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel treatment, in human or degrading treatment or punishment”, while Article 6 of the UDHR contemplates that 'everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before law”. Article 10(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also lays down that 'All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

CONCLUSION

The idea of human rights is unchained from all restrictions, and allows everyone to have an inherent right to access of these, whether they be a prisoner or a freeman. A convict is someone with repressed liberty, whether it be through confinement, capture, or forceful restraint. But these situations do curtail one’s human rights, as well as the rights of being in prison. Being a prisoner does not equate to not being eligible to demand fundamental rights. Prisoners have all their constitutional rights in place when they are convicted of a crime, hence they also ought to have appropriate constitutional rights in place when they are being convicted of a crime.

 

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Nikita Mehrotra 
on 22 February 2021
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