Prison Land & Reform: Cellmate or Sell, Mate?

There comes a time when silence is betrayal.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The time has come for us, the civil servants – retired or in-service – to speak out. While many are talking of wider vital issues like adherence to the Constitution of India, the state of democracy, or political parties dividing the nation on caste & communal lines, this article is more limited in its scope – ie protection of public land – and deals with prison lands to be specific.

The administrative subject of prisons comes under the State List and the beginning of the last century saw much construction of prisons all over the country. District prisons were built near court buildings or offices of District Magistrates and in the vicinity of Police Headquarters and civil hospitals. These district prisons housed under-trials who were produced in court, bailed out or tried. If convicted, they were sent to Central Prisons that mainly hosted convicts. Police escorts were essential for their movement, be it to courts or hospital or elsewhere.

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Central Prisons, however, were typically constructed outside cities as the concept of reformation and reintegration of prisoners into mainstream society emerged later. The thought prevalent at the time was that society is to be ‘saved’ from criminal elements, therefore Central Prisons with convicted criminals of proven guilt must be at a distance from ‘good citizens’. And to keep prisons secure, no construction was permitted around them; for example, in Maharashtra no construction could be undertaken within a 500-metre periphery of Central Prisons. The same pattern was followed broadly by other states too.

With passage of time, cities spread out and by the end of the last century most Central Prisons became an integral part. This slowly led to encroachment of the prison security buffer-zone in some cities. Complaints by prison authorities were not taken seriously and sometimes there was silent consent from them toward the encroachment. There are also instances where prison officials were pressured to part with their land, sometimes in the name of noble cause as is the case of Nagpur Prison where a hospital was constructed despite objection from prison officials.

The situation has changed drastically today. Emboldened by their earlier breaches in the armour of the prison department, many state governments are openly considering handing over the secure buffer-zone to private developers, or moving the prisons away. What better way to make fast money! They have also realised the pliability of committees appointed by them to decide on the use of prison land and the inability of prison officials to muster strong public opinion against such moves, as can be seen in the case of the state of Maharashtra.

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It is time that the citizenry be made aware of the reality. Their silence will cause tremendous damage to public land and the public cause, while coffers of politicians and developers will overflow. We having worked in government understand the issue of paucity of land for different offices, for instance session courts in most cities are highly congested, magistrates have no place to sit, and the workplaces of public prosecutors are abysmal. A visit to any court in Mumbai will be an eye-opener for a concerned citizen. Due to a paucity of space most court corridors overflow with different stake holders. They are overflowing with court staff, defence lawyers, witnesses, relatives of under-trials, and police personnel. A serious shortage of restrooms can be observed in most courts. Due to this paucity of space most court corridors overflow with different stake holders.

Housing for judiciary, police, and prison staff is another serious issue. Judges, magistrates, prosecutors and court staff travel long distances to reach courts. No constable working in Mumbai can afford to stay in the city or even its suburbs, and satisfaction levels of official police housing are poor for constabulary. They are expected to give evidence during trials and escort under-trial prisoners to & from prisons, besides holding responsibility for the security of courts. All this along with investigation work and attending to law & order, VIP duties etc.

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It is therefore proposed that we raise voice against doling out of prison security buffer-zones to private builders and bring public pressure that the land so released be used only for the purpose of different agencies of law enforcement, viz Police, Prosecution, Judiciary and Prisons. The nearer courts are to prisons, the easier would be the task of police escorting under-trials to courts, resulting in speedier trials. A study of police personnel escorting prisoners from Taloja Central Prison to Mumbai Sessions Court would prove how much public money and time is wasted in this 45 km journey. As a consequence, Arthur Road Central prison has three times more under trial prisoners on average than its designed capacity, owing to its proximity to Mumbai courts. To construct more prisons nearer courts and police headquarters is a separate but very important issue.

To conclude, let’s join hands in advocating the cause of public land for public purpose and, in this case, prison land only for the use of different wings of the criminal justice system. Otherwise silence shall be criminal.


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The author, Meeran Chadha Borwankar, is a retired Police Officer who served as Chief of the Maharashtra Prison Department for over 3 years.

She believes that her uniform enables her to expedite the social change she wants to see in India, especially for girls and women.

To contact Meeran, visit her website:

www.mcborwankar.com


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