On 14th May 2018, the Calcutta High Court under Chief Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya and Justice Arijit Banerjee initiated a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to take up the issue of Overcrowding in Prisons as a Suo Motu (on its own) writ petition. The High Court ordered the State to file an affidavit to mention in detail, the capacity/sanctioned strength of each correctional home and the actual number of inmates in each correctional home.
In August 2018, the Court had directed the State to furnish the details of criminal cases in respect of 57 Life Convicts whose orders for release were still pending to take the necessary action for their early release.
Mr Tapas Kumar Bhanja is the learned Amicus Curiae for the case.
Reports on the Situation of Jails and Orders from 2018 to 2019
The Advocate General submitted 59 names who have been life convicts. As per the report, the 56 life convicts are yet to be released even after a recommendation from the State Sentences Review Board (SSRB).
The Court directed The State Legal Services Authority to forward the list to the Districts Legal Services Authority (DLSA) along with instructions for appropriate legal steps release the convicts at the earliest.
In September, the Court ordered, “the Board of Visitors for Correctional Homes of West Bengal was directed to function more efficiently and perform its duties sincerely through the Sub‐ Divisions.” The Board was also directed to submit a report containing the information regarding the number of inmates in different Correctional Homes in the State of West Bengal and the capacity of those Correctional Homes as also the infrastructure of those Correctional Homes.
After almost a year, in September 2019 the State Government submitted a report which showed that 118 recommendations of the SSRB are pending with the Judicial Department, the first among which was a recommendation made in 29th May 2017. The Court stated that
“On the face of this stark reality, we see that the Judicial Department is sitting on recommendations from 29-05-2017.”
Chief Justice Bhattacharya ordered that the necessary steps be taken concerning the 118 persons’ recommendations and be finalized without fail by the Judicial Department.
On 30th September 2019, the Registrar General of this Court submitted that “there are apparent errors in the data given by the Judicial Secretary.” Moreover, all the subordinate courts had not responded to the queries of the High Court.
The Court emphasized that these prisoners are entitled to seek orders of remission in accordance to law as well as their Fundamental Right to life and Liberty (Article 21) as well as the Equality doctrine (Article 14). Therefore, the Registrar General of the High Court was directed to alert the subordinate courts to respond to all the queries without fail.
In November, as per the order of the Court, 19 convicts recommended by the SSRB in its 59th and 61st meetings, were ordered to be released from the correctional homes. At the next date of hearing in December of 2019, the Court submitted that
“We do not see much has been done by the Board of Visitors of the Correctional Homes to instil confidence in the minds of the Court that there are no under trial prisoners languishing in the prisons from among those who would have been entitled to consideration for release in terms of the provisions of Section 436A Cr.PC*.”
*Section 436A of CrPC states that if any person, under investigation has undergone detention for a period extending up to one-half of the maximum period of imprisonment specified for the particular crime then the Court has to release the offender on his personal bond with or without sureties.
The Court also stated that more efficient legal aid should be provided in such cases.
Supreme Court’s Instructions and High Court’s Order
On 24th March 2020, the Court ordered that the situation in the jails and the correctional homes need to be addressed in view of the measures being taken to contain the spread of COVID-19 or coronavirus. The Court pointed out that it is a matter of record, as is represented through two years of court proceedings that the correctional homes and jails are overcrowded.
On 23rd March, the Apex Court had issued directions in Suo Motu Writ Petition 1 of 2020 that instructed State Governments “to take immediate steps to consider all precautionary measures within the correctional homes and jails and also take adequate steps to enable the release of convicts and under-trials particularly those who are in the zone of punishments which have been awarded to the range of seven years of imprisonment to the maximum.”
The High Court submitted that they cannot release a generalized direction in relation to all the under-trials or convicts as all are required to be judged individually on a case by case basis by the Government and the Court concerned with the assistance of the State Legal Services Authority (SLSA), District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), and many other institutions.
The Court under Chief Justice Thottathil B. Radhakrishnan and Justice Arijit Banerjee constituted a committee with the Head as an Officer not below the rank of Chief Secretary/Principal Secretary to the government along with the involvement of institutions indicated above. The Chairman of the West Bengal State Legal Services Committee was directed to be a member as well. The directions of the Supreme Court noted above was to be taken as a guideline as well as other binding instructions and provisions of the law are to be taken into consideration.
The report regarding this will be communicated by the Government on 31st March 2020. The Court also clarified that “it will be open to the persons involved in the Committee to adopt E-mode of communication and telecon for the purpose of achieving the requisite measures.”
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