‘Loss of family bonds, alienation from society’: SC speaks up for jail inmates

Bench noted the danger of unjust imprisonment is that inmates are at risk of 'prisonisation'

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has observed that the danger of unjust imprisonment is that inmates are at risk of suffering from “prisonisation”. It pointed out that incarceration has other deleterious effects as well, especially for an accused from weaker economic strata.

The deleterious effects listed by the apex court included the immediate loss of livelihood, scattering of families as well as loss of family bonds, and alienation from society. And if the trials are not concluded on time, injustice wreaked on the individual is immeasurable.

A bench of Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta said: “Jails are overcrowded and their living conditions, more often than not, appalling. According to the Union Home Ministry’s response to Parliament, the National Crime Records Bureau had recorded that as on 31st December 2021, over 5,54,034 prisoners were lodged in jails against a total capacity of 4,25,069 in the country. Of these 122,852 were convicts; the rest 4,27,165 were undertrials.”

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The bench added that incarceration has further deleterious effects — where the accused belongs to the weakest economic strata: immediate loss of livelihood, and in several cases, scattering of families as well as loss of family bonds and alienation from society.

Justice Bhat, who authored the judgment on behalf of the bench, said: “The courts therefore, have to be sensitive to these aspects (because in the event of an acquittal, the loss to the accused is irreparable), and ensure that trials – especially in cases, where special laws enact stringent provisions, are taken up and concluded speedily.”

The top court noted that it would be important to reflect that laws which impose stringent conditions for grant of bail, may be necessary in public interest; yet, if trials are not concluded in time, the injustice wrecked on the individual is immeasurable.

The bench noted the danger of unjust imprisonment is that inmates are at risk of “prisonisation” — a term described by the Kerala High Court in A Convict Prisoner v. State as “a radical transformation”.

The court noted that the prisoner loses his identity, he is known by a number, loses personal possessions, has no personal relationships and also psychological problems result from loss of freedom, status, possessions, dignity, and autonomy of personal life.

It said there is a further danger of the prisoner turning to crime, “as crime not only turns admirable, but the more professional the crime, more honour is paid to the criminal”.

The apex court made these observations while upholding that an undue delay in trial can be a ground for grant of bail to an accused charged under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985 (NDPS Act), despite the stringent conditions provided under Section 37.

The apex court granted bail to a man, after noting that he had spent over seven years in jail in a NDPS case and trial was proceeding at snail’s pace.

It observed that the right to speedy trial of offenders facing criminal charges is “implicit in the broad sweep and content of Article 21 as interpreted by this court”.

Petitioner Mohd. Muslim moved the apex court challenging the Delhi High Court order, which rejected his bail application even though he already undergone imprisonment for more than seven years, and the criminal trial had barely reached the half-way mark.

The appellant was accused of committing offences punishable under Sections 20, 25, and 29 of the NDPS Act. The top court noted that at the time of his arrest, the appellant was 23 years old and he was not found in possession of the narcotic drugs but the co-accused were. Also, the prosecution has not shown involvement of the appellant, in any other case.

Petitioner’s counsel argued that the period of long incarceration suffered, entitled the appellant to grant of bail and also 34 more witnesses were yet to be examined, with little or no progress to the trial since the high court’s direction to expedite the trial.

It was contended that the main and other co-accused had already been granted bail by the high court and petitioner’s counsel urged the court for bail on the ground of parity.

Additional Solicitor General Vikramjit Banerjee strongly opposed grant of bail, citing Section 37 of the NDPS Act and contended that the appellant was actively involved in the commission of the offence — with call records and bank transactions implicating him with the main accused.

He submitted that such cases are deeply concerning, as the accused persons are said to be involved in a drug peddling network. It was further argued that the public interest of protection against sale and use of illegal drugs outweighed the concerns regarding individual liberty of the accused, and justified continued custody of the appellant.

The top court noted that the petitioner has been in custody since October 3, 2015, barring grant of interim bail from time to time, for wedding ceremonies and to take care of his ailing mother.

“The appellant has been in custody for over seven years and four months. The progress of the trial has been at a snail’s pace: 30 witnesses have been examined, whereas 34 more have to be examined,” it noted.

In conclusion, it said that the appellant is directed to be enlarged on bail, subject to such conditions as the trial court may impose.

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