Unlawfulness and criminal behaviour are obstacles to the development of a society and a country; hamper the rule of law and democracy; and adversely affect the movement for peace. To prevent and restrain offenders, the concept of a prison system was introduced by the British colonisers in this sub-continent in the 18th century. At that time, the prison system was used as a means of punishment. Later, the Congress Party demanded a change in the concept of prisons from an 'institute of punishment' to an 'institute of correction'. As a result, the "Prison Reform Committee" was established in 1920 which recommended that prisons should be used as "correctional institutes" rather "punishment institute".
Since then the concept of prisons in this Subcontinent has been realised as " Correctional Institutes"- on paper. However, the practical experience is that the prisons in Bangladesh are no more than punishment institutes, where mental and physical tortures of inmates occur. However, before discussing the prison administration in Bangladesh, Prisoners and Human Rights, we have to know the laws under which the Prison System is governed. Basically, the Prison Act, 1894; the Prisoners Act, 1898; the Jail Code of 1837 are the main laws and regulations which govern the Prison System in Bangladesh to date. The Criminal Procedure Code, The Penal Code, The Police Act, The Civil Procedure Code, The Special Powers Act are broadly exercised in the Prison System in Bangladesh as well.
The Prison Administration:
The Prison Administration is controlled by several government organs. It is housed under the Ministry of Home Affairs but is also controlled by the Ministry of Establishment in respect of the promotion, posting and appointment of the officials. It is operated by the Directorate of Prisons, which includes the Inspector General of Prisons (IG Prisons), Additional and Deputy Inspector Generals of Prisons, Superintendent of Prisons, Jailers, Deputy Jailers etc.
Since November 1977 to this day, the Prison Administration in Bangladesh has been handled by members of the Armed Forces - except the period of 1981, during President Sattar's regime. The Bangladesh Prison Administration is an absolutely Civil Administration and the Officers and Staff (Department of Prisons) Recruitment Rules, 1984 provides that the provision of recruitment of the Inspector General of Prisons should be " by Promotion on the basis of merit-cum-seniority from amongst the DIGs of prisons and, if none is found suitable for promotion, by transfer on deputation of a suitable officer holding a post equivalent to the post of Joint Secretary". The qualifications have been laid down in the rules that the Person to be Promoted should be 18 years of service in the Department including 3 years of Service as D.I.G of Prisons.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Home Affairs recommended, at a meeting of 16 September 1999, that in Clause 3(d) of the said Recruitment Rules of 1984, there should be steps to appoint the Senior Posts of Jail Administration, including the top position, by promoting the departmental officers as per the Recruitment rules. Following the rules one Senior Assistant Secretary of Ministry of Home Affairs vide letter No. 1 E-2/86-Jail-1/164 dated 13.3.97 requested the Secretary of Establishment to withdraw the Present IG Prisons Brig. M. Waliur Rahman Chowdhury within six month. In 1982 the single-member Marshal Law Committee Comprising of Brig. M. Abdul Halim also recommended to recruit the IG Prisons by Promoting the Departmental officers. In spite of all these clear rules and recommendations, the civil administration of prisons is still occupied by Military Personnel in the regime of an elected government.
Prisoners inside the Prison:
A preliminary investigation report by Odhikar: a coalition for human rights, found that the condition of the prisons and their inmates in Bangladesh are deplorable. In all the prisons, specially in the old, ill-equipped ones, over-crowding, poor hygiene, almost non-existent sanitation facilities, lack of proper health care combine with corruption to create a nightmare scenario. Furthermore, inmates are sometimes denied visiting rights or their family is turned away at the jail gate if they are unable to pay bribes. They suffer further humiliation in the fact that within 24 hours their numbers are counted several times.
The problem of overcrowding is mainly due to the delay of holding trial, as the number of under-trial prisoners is very high. Just how bad the situation is in the jails in Bangladesh today can be seen from the table below:
There are 16 Thana Jails in all over the country where actual accommodation capacity is only 480 but at present there is no inmate in the Thana Jails. Thus, out of the total of eighty jails in Bangladesh, the District jails and Central jails are appallingly overcrowded, while the thana jails remain empty.
At present 582 of the inmates in Bangladesh's jails are foreigners. Out of this number, 19 are women. These people have either been awarded release orders by the court or have already served their conviction and sentence. Unfortunately, they are rotting inside prison due to technical problems which could be solved easily by the respective governments. Needless to say, these inmates are passing their days in miserable conditions. There are also many Rohingya women and children in different prisons in the country who are yet to face trial under the Foreigners Act as illegal trespassers.
Different classes of prisoners are kept in separate cells and wards divided into the convicted, the under-trial, the detenu and male and female. This is in accordance to the rules and regulations. However, in spite of all these rules, Odhikar found that some prison officials were abusing the inmates, torturing them in order to extort money. Those prisoners who have money and influence are living in comparatively better conditions. In prison parlance 'division' is translated into 'social standing and esteem'. A person's social standing would determine which 'division' he or she would be placed in. Sometimes, the divisions are determined by a court order. Political, administrative and financial factors also play a role in the determination of division. There are mainly two Divisions in the prison - namely I and II. The elite and financially affluent and high ranking persons are kept in the first division while the rest are kept in the second. It is therefore obvious that from jail gate to prison kitchen, those who can afford bribes can have a comfortable life in the prison.
Prison security in some jails also needs to be questioned. It is not only corruption that is affecting the jail system, but also the inattentiveness of the prison guards. Recently, nine inmates of Sherpur District Jail tried to escape. Two managed to find freedom. Among the others, one was killed. Investigators from Odhikar found that escape had been made simple due to the lapse in security measures.
The total annual budget of our Prisons is only Tk.90 crores. Out of this amount, the salaries of the numerous prison staff, the food, clothing and other expenses of over 61 thousand inmates for 365 days are covered. Given the disparity between the budget and the expenses it has to cover, anybody can easily presume the real situation of our prison system and the quality and quantity of food, medication and clothing the prisoners actually receive. For example, if we calculate only the cost of food for an average 61 thousand inmates for 365 days, at the rate of Tk.50 per head per day, then the amount comes to Taka 11,132,50,000.
One can therefore imagine that with the over-crowded cells, poor hygiene, sanitation and ventilation facilities, sub-standard food and administrative corruption, an ordinary prisoner's life is one of complete desolation and ill-being. That with money and influence fare better, but their number is comparatively few.
Given the above circumstances, it is to be noted that we should develop our prison system to ensure the human rights and fundamental rights of the inmates in the prisons in Bangladesh. They too are citizens of the country and protected by the constitution. In 1980, the Justice Munim Commission Report suggested a total of 180 recommendations necessary to improve prison conditions. Out of this number, only 64 recommendations have been fully executed, 28 partly executed and 88 still to be implemented. According to Odhikar, in addition to these recommendations, the following measures should be taken immediately to improve the prison system and ensure the rights of prisoners:
1. To issue sufficient and substantial annual Budget for the prisons.
2. To construct the Prisons with sufficient accommodation capacity.
3. To ensure immediate sufficient and standard medical, food, clothing and recreation facilities;
4. To improve sanitation and ventilation facilities.
5. To make ensure speedy trials to decrease the number of under trial prisoners.
6. To ensure education, legal awareness and right to work of the inmates.
7. To ensure free visiting rights of relatives.
8. To make the prisons correctional/reformative institutions.
9. To implement parole, probation and after care services.
10. To give proper wages to persons under rigorous imprisonment, for their labour.
11. To ensure the recruitment of the Inspector General of Prisons from a departmental candidate.
12. To try the corrupt officials in the prisons and ensure prisons remain corruption-free.
13. To give proper human rights training to the prison administrators and others concerned and to the prisons as well.
The writer is a Member of the Executive Committee of Odhikar.