Custodial Deaths In Delhi Prisons: High Rate of Suicide, Inquests Delayed Due To Lockdown

Central Jails in Delhi witnessed the deaths of 32 inmates in 2020 as per the data received by LiveLaw through applications filed under the Right To Information Act. This figure reflects the data from 14 out of 16 central jails in Delhi. Central Jail Numbers 2 and 14 did not provide information within the statutory period of 30 months.

Out of these 32 deaths, information regarding the nature of death has been provided only in 13 cases. Out of these 13 cases, 7 inmates died due to suicide.

Delay In Meeting The Mandatory Requirement of Inquest Report

In order to secure independent oversight over the investigation on custodial deaths, the Criminal Procedure Code was amended to include section 176(1A) which states that when any person dies or disappears in judicial custody, in addition to the inquiry or investigation held by the police, an inquiry shall be held by the Judicial Magistrate or the Metropolitan Magistrate, as the case may be, within whose local jurisdiction the offence has been committed.

In Re-Inhuman Conditions In 1382 Prisons v. State of Assam, the Supreme Court had observed that:

‘There are several such cases – documented and undocumented – all over the country but in spite of repeated decisions delivered by this Court and perhaps every High Court there seems to be no let up in custodial deaths. This is not a sad but a tragic state of affairs indicating the apparent disdain of the State to the life and liberty of individuals, particularly those in custody. The time to remedy the situation is long past and yet, there seems to be no will and therefore no solution in sight.’

The need to ensure timely and expeditious conducting of inquest proceedings was recognised by the National Human Rights Commission had issued fresh guidelines wherein it had recommended that the inquest procedure should be completed as soon as possible and in such a way that the inquest report is also made available within the deadline of two months.

This recommendation of the National Human Rights Commission was also incorporated as a mandatory requirement in the newly revised Delhi Prison Rules. Rule 545 of Delhi Prison Rules, 2018, reads as:

‘The death of any prisoner, which is a custodial death, shall be handled as per the procedure laid down in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, and the guidelines issued by the National Human Rights Commission from time to time.’

However, as per the information received from the jails, the mandatory requirement of 2 months for completing the inquest procedure has not been complied with in 24 out of the 32 cases. In the remaining 8 cases, information on the conducting of inquest proceedings has not been provided in 7 cases.

In order to inquire further into this delay, a telephonic call was made to one of the officers from the Jail Department who said the inquests are getting delayed due to the nationwide lockdown imposed in light of the COVID19 pandemic. However, this explanation must be read in the context that almost all of these deaths happened prior to the date on which lockdown was enforced and the figures provided by the jails do not account for deaths that happened due to the COVID19 infection. A criminal lawyer for Delhi, who closely works with the prisons, informed us that if the number of COVID deaths are accounted for, this figure would reflect a steep rise.

The information by the jails is also silent on whether the mandatory requirement under Rule 556 of the Delhi Prison Rules has been complied with or not. The said rule states that:

‘If the death of a prisoner has occurred, the Superintendent shall make a detailed investigation of the circumstances connected with the case with a view to determine any laxity or negligence on the part of any official in discharge of his duty, or any shortcoming or lacuna in functioning of prison administration which resulted into such death. This report shall be forwarded, immediately to the Inspector General, without awaiting findings of Magisterial inquest, who will take action where deemed proper against the delinquent official(s) or to remove lacuna or shortcoming, as the case may be.’

The requirement under Rule 556 is important not just to identify the causes that might have led to the death, but also to identify cases where the compensation would be required to be paid to the family of the deceased as per the NHRC guidelines.

Suicide By Inmates: A Major Concern

As per the recent Prison Statistics Report, a total of 7 inmates committed suicide in the jails of Delhi. In 5 out of these 7 cases, suicide was committed by taking recourse to hanging. As per the information received, 7 inmates have committed suicide so far in 2020. This figure is concerning as it doesn’t even contain the data from two of the central jails and also the fact that we’re only halfway through the current year.

For instance, in the women’s prison, both the deaths that happened were those of undertrial prisoners and one of them committed suicide by hanging. Moreover, all the deaths that occurred in Jail No. 10 and 15 were attributed to suicide by hanging.

Conclusion

It is pertinent to point out that the Prison Statistics of India Report, which is prepared by the National Crimes Record Bureau and is the most important source for prison research, does not even record data on how many of the custodial deaths pertained to the undertrial prisoners. This lack of categorisation adversely impacts research on prison sociology which might want to focus on studying the specific conditions of undertrial prisoners who undergo long periods of incarceration without even being convicted. The rate of suicide among the undertrial prisoners can also be pertinent in understanding the impact of prison environment on inmates who are still innocent in the eyes of law but are unable to move out of incarceration due to denial of pre-trial bail or lack of socio-economic means to furnish sureties.

It shall also be highlighted that due to the revised guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on prison visitation, have further pushed the prison data to opacity. The onerous requirements such as hefty security amount and the constant presence of the jail officer who also has the absolute power to censor the content, has made it extremely difficult for the independent researchers to work on prison reforms and criminology.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karan Tripathi

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Karan is a Legal Journalist and an Independent Researcher who is driven towards criminal justice reforms.

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