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Vulnerable Prisoners In Jails

The jails in India are mainly populated by the undertrial prisoners who constitute about 90% of the prisoners' population and are chiefly responsible for the overcrowding in jails. A large portion of the jail population is composed of people belonging to the vulnerable sections of the society like, women, children of prisoner mothers, elderly and infirm prisoners, transgender prisoners, mentally ill prisoners, death row prisoners, foreign national prisoners, young offenders, pre-trial detainees, minorities and indigenous people and physically or mentally differently abled prisoners etc.

These prisoners are vulnerable to mistreatment, discrimination, humiliation, harassment, physical and psychological abuse and violence due to their vulnerable identity. To protect and safeguard their rights is the duty of the society, prison staff and their fellow prisoners for the development of a healthy and vibrant environment.

A vulnerable prisoner has not been defined in any Code, Act, Rule, Law, Regulation or Manual in India. However, certain groups of prisoners remain in a particularly vulnerable position in prisons, and therefore, need additional care and protection. Due to inadequate facilities and lack of specialist care, some group of prisoners may experience greater suffering while lodged in prisons.

They may suffer from humiliation, physical and psychological abuse, and violence due to their ethnicity, religion, nationality, disability, gender and sexual orientation. These vulnerable groups include women, transgender persons, children of prisoners, foreign national prisoners, death-row prisoners, young offenders, the physically or mentally differently abled and old and infirm prisoners, pre-trial detainees and minorities or indigenous people.

Women Prisoners

  • Women prisoners are very vulnerable, must be housed separately, and taken care of by women staff.
  • During admission, women prisoners must be checked by a female doctor and searched by female staff. Proper care should be provided to pregnant prisoners.
  • Sanitation, hygiene, and privacy for self-hygiene should be ensured.
  • More women's prisons are needed to accommodate female prisoners separately from male prisoners.
  • Mental health concerns of female prisoners need adequate attention.
  • Free legal aid services should be provided to needy women prisoners.
  • Entertainment through TV and cultural programs should be arranged.
  • Regular meetings with children and family members, including video calls and phone facilities, should be allowed.

Children of Prisoners

  • Children born in prisons or staying with prisoner mothers suffer unjustly.
  • Births in prison should be registered without mentioning the prison location.
  • Children can stay with parents until age six, after which alternative arrangements should be made.
  • Suitable clothing, diet, vaccinations, and education for children in prisons.
  • Proper education and recreational opportunities for children of women prisoners.
  • Cr�ches/nursery schools should be provided when mothers work.
  • Medical and mental health facilities for children.
  • Post-separation, regular meetings between children and their mothers.

Young Offenders

  • Young offenders (18-21) should be kept separate from other prisoners.
  • Persons under 18 are juveniles and should not be kept in prison.
  • Age verification of prisoners claiming to be under 18.
  • Providing a balanced diet for growth.
  • Meeting educational needs with a focus on various aspects.
  • Free legal aid services for young offenders if required.

Foreign National Prisoners

  • As a result of globalization, migration, human trafficking and transnational crime, the number of foreign prisoners is increasing in many countries. The prison population in Europe is particularly notable and increasing at a rapid pace.
  • The superintendent of the prison must inform the concerned embassies immediately about the confinement of their citizens after admission of such prisoners to the prisons through proper channel or as directed by the competent government authorities.
  • They must be given reasonable facilities to communicate with their consulate officials as soon as they enter prison. Their communication should be sent to their consulates without delay (subject to permissible censorship).
  • They may also be allowed to buy postage stamps to write letters to family, relatives or friends in foreign countries. If they do not have any cash deposited in prison, stamps should be supplied by the prison.
  • They may be permitted to use video-conferencing and email facilities, subject to security regulations, to contact their families.
  • The process of nationality verification must start immediately upon their admission in prison.
  • The help of translators may be taken to communicate properly with them.
  • They should not be subjected to any form of discrimination by the prison staff or fellow prisoners owing to their different ethnicity, religion, culture and language.
  • Proper initiatives should be taken in advance so that they don't have to remain in jail even after their release order form court due to procedural delays.
  • Free legal aid services should be provided to them if required.

Mentally Ill and Differently Abled Prisoners

The high rate of mental disability among prisoners is related to many interrelated factors. All prisoners are at risk of developing a range of mental disabilities in prisons, regardless of whether they had special mental health care needs on entry. WHO and ICRC specifically identified overcrowding, various forms of violence, enforced solitude or lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activity, social isolation networks, inadequate health services, especially mental health services, among the factors which have a detrimental effect on the mental well-being of most prisoners. Prisoners with mental disabilities are ill-equipped to survive in an often-brutal environment. The environment of prisons and their condition most often deteriorate in the absence of adequate healthcare and appropriate psychosocial support.

Prisoners with disabilities are a particularly vulnerable group whose situation and special needs have not yet been the subject of much study. Although figures concerning the number of prisoners with disabilities worldwide are rare, some studies suggest that given the growing prison population in most countries and significant increase in the number of older prisoners, the numbers of people with disabilities are also increasing in prisons.
  • Differently abled prisoners have an equal right to access facilities, programs, and services.
  • Hearing-impaired prisoners should be given sign language interpreters during disciplinary hearings, classification hearings, educational and vocational programs.
  • Mentally ill prisoners should be provided proper treatment, and their cases must be reviewed periodically to avoid prolonged or indefinite detention.
  • Special steps may be taken for early release of mentally ill and differently abled prisoners.
  • Free legal aid services should be provided to them if needed.
  • Other prisoners should be made aware of the difficulties faced by them so that they don't harass them or make fun of their illness.

Death-Row Prisoners

  • In many countries, prisoners on death row spend more than a decade awaiting execution. Some will never be executed because of the moratorium and eventual abolition of the death penalty. Thus, prisoners sentenced to death have special needs because of the most extreme form of punishment inflicted upon them that renders access to legal aid and sincere application of legal safeguards absolutely essential. They too have special needs due to the length of time usually spent in prison and anxiety suffered during years of imprisonment awaiting execution. Therefore, the countries which have not yet abolished the death penalty must implement policies and management strategies that protect the human rights of this vulnerable group of prisoners, which should guarantee and facilitate their access to legal aid, ensure that there are all legal guarantees to which they are entitled, and that these prisoners are held in conditions that meet the UN standard Minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, similar to all other prisoners.
  • They must be granted interviews with their family, relatives, friends, or lawyers once a week or more often, if necessary, in the presence of an official.
  • They may be visited by a priest of the faith they follow.
  • They may be allowed religious books, pictures and emblems, newspapers, books and stationery items.
  • They are generally confined in a separate cell and placed under the charge of a guard day and night.
  • Their physical and mental health should be taken care of.

Transgender Prisoners

Transgender people are a particularly vulnerable group in the criminal justice system and in prisons. To date relatively little has been written about their special needs though information about discrimination and the abuse of this group in criminal justice systems around the world is increasing. Along with extending them all facilities as provided to other prisoners, they should be kept in a separate ward and their special needs taken care of. They should not be subjected to humiliation, torture and embarrassment by the prison staff and other prisoners.

Elderly and Infirm Prisoners

The number of elderly prisoners is growing especially in developed countries where overall life expectancy has increased. The growth of the elderly prison population is the consequence of tightening the practice of punishment, increased use of incarceration and restrictions on early release mechanisms in some countries. The number of offenders serving life sentences has increased significantly in recent years.

Poor prison conditions in the vast majority of prison systems, along with the growing prison population in many countries, the prevalence of risky behavior among prisoners and the vastly inadequate health services in most prison systems, are some of the key factors leading to disease and death in prisons. The aging of the prison population, especially in economically developed countries, and increase in tuberculosis (TB), HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases in a large number of prison systems, have led to a growth in the number of prisoners terminally ill in prisons around the world. Prisoners, including the terminally ill, are entitled to a standard of healthcare equivalent to that available in the outside community.

Elderly and infirm prisoners are prone to disease and poor health. Proper medical care and facilities should be provided to them regularly. Special initiatives should be taken for early release of such prisoners.

Pre-trial Detainees

In many jails 90% of the prisoners are pre-trial detainees. Some of them have to stay in prisons for a number of years due to delay in trial and non-grant of bail. Due to their presence mainly, there is overcrowding in jails. Free legal aid services should be provided to them if required and their physical and mental health taken care of. As they are deprived of parole facility as provided to the convicts, their problems should be listened to sympathetically.

Minorities or Indigenous People

In many countries, they are members of ethnic, religious and racial minorities and indigenous peoples significantly overrepresented in crime statistics and in prisons.

It should be ensured that no physical or mental torture is inflicted on minorities and indigenous people lodged in jails due to their race, ethnicity or religion either by the prison staff or by their fellow prisoners. Most of them are in need of free legal aid services which should be provided to them.

There are also complaints that advocates engaged by the legal services authorities don't fight the cases of such vulnerable people in the courts with vigor and sincerity to ensure that justice is done to them due to poor and irregular remuneration given to them. They also seldom meet the prisoners in jail and brief them about the development in their cases.

To protect the fundamental and human rights of the vulnerable sections of the prisoners lodged in jails is important for the development of a healthy and vibrant society. Any sort of discrimination against the prisoners due to their vulnerable position may disrupt the peace of the prisons as well as the social fabric of a democratic country. The condition of jails in a country is a reflection of the country itself.

Hence, for overall development of the society and the country there is urgent need to improve the condition of jails in terms of its habitability, infrastructure, physical and mental health services and accommodation etc.


Written By: Md. Imran Wahab,
IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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