New Delhi, Sep 15 (IANS) The Supreme Court on Friday asked the high courts across the country to register suo motu PILs to identify and compensate the next of kin of the prisoners who died an unnatural death while custody during 2012 to 2015 or even later as even prison inmates have a right to live with dignity.
Directing the registration of PIL for paying compensation to the next of kin of the prisoner who met an unnatural end, the bench of Justice Madan B. Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta, in their judgment, said that unless the state realise that custodial death was itself a crime, the unnatural deaths in custody will continue unabated.
During four years from 2012 to 2015, 551 prisoners met an unnatural end.
Speaking for the bench, Justice Lokur said: “The constitutional courts can go on delivering judgment after judgment on this issue and award compensation, but unless the state realizes that custodial death is itself a crime and monetary compensation is not necessarily the only appropriate relief that can be granted to the next of kin of the deceased, such unnatural deaths will continue unabated.”
The court said this while dealing with the issue of custodial deaths in the prisons – one of the four issues flagged by the former Chief Justice of India R.C.Lahoti in his letter addressed to the top court in 2013.
Other issues raised by the former Chief Justice included overcrowding of prisons, gross inadequacy of staff, and the staff manning the jail being untrained or inadequately trained.
Holding that even prisoners were entitled to live a life of dignity, the court appeared not appreciative of the Central government’s position that though it would look after the interest of the prisoners but there are several development priorities that might require greater attention and greater financial commitment.
“While this may be so, we are clearly of the view that Article 21 of the Constitution cannot be put on the back burner … even prisoners are entitled to live a life of dignity” and state government can’t “shirk its duties and responsibilities for providing better facilities to prisoners,” it said.
“If the fundamental right to life and liberty postulated by Article 21 of the Constitution is to be given its true meaning, the Central Government and the State Governments must accept reality and not proceed on the basis that prisoners can be treated as chattels,” the court said.
It asked the government to be “far more circumspect in arresting and detaining persons, particularly under-trial prisoners who constitute the vast majority of those in judicial custody”.
It further said that in such a situation, the State and its agencies should not be forthcoming in opposing every plea for bail or seeking remand of every suspect during the pendency of investigation.
The court on Friday issued 10 directions that included appointment of counsellors and support staff to counsel and advice prisoners who might be facing some crisis situation or might have some violent or suicidal tendencies.
It encouraging visits by prisoners’ family members and giving them more time to meet and increasing their frequency.
Noting availability of medical facilities to inmates in prisons needs no reaffirmation, the court said: “The right to health is undoubtedly a human right and all state governments should concentrate on making this a reality for all, including prisoners.”
It also directed the Ministry of Women & Child Development to discuss with the state governments and formulate procedures for tabulating the number of children (if any) who suffer an unnatural death in child care institutions as no data is kept on the death of any child in juvenile homes.
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