Good sense in some degree seems to have dawned at last upon the State Home department headed by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, as borne out by its recent urgency to strengthen prison security. After nearly two decades, Dispur has now thought it fit that a senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer should be the chief of jails in Assam. Since the early Nineties, the post of Inspector General of Prisons has been held by a succession of Assam Civil Service bureaucrats. This is in stark contrast to most other states, where IPS officers are normally in charge of prison security. But now Chief Minister Gogoi has been forced to take corrective action belatedly after 14 long years, with the daring jailbreak by four undertrial prisoners from Diphu district jail last month leaving red faces in the police administration. All four were members of the proscribed Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) who simply broke out of their cells by bending iron bars at the door and then using bedsheets as a rope to scale the boundary wall. This was not an isolated incident however. In the last 2-3 years, there have been at least ten jailbreaks across the State, in places as widely scattered as Jorhat, Hamren, Barpeta, Silchar and Karimganj. But the Diphu jailbreak seems to have come as the last straw, with the Chief Minister asking the DGP to institute a probe, punish errant jail officials and take steps to strengthen security in all the 32 prisons in the State.
It has been common knowledge for long that prisons in Assam are a haven for hardened crimils, from where they run their crimil activities with impunity. Only a few years back, a local daily showed a picture of the convicted murderer of Varun Shandilya, sipping tea nonchalantly outside the Guwahati central jail without any handcuffs or security personnel in tow. Ten year old Varun’s murder in January 2000 had sent shockwaves across the State, for he had been lured by a tent in his home compound, sexually abused and then chopped into pieces. The murderer maged to give cops the slip on way to the sessions court, and it was only Varun’s father’s untiring efforts which led to his recapture five years later in Imphal. Yet after the convicted murderer was handed a life sentence, he was photographed by reporters roaming around freely outside the jail. It then came to light that the Guwahati central jail was chronically understaffed, leading to overburdened jail employees pressing inmates into office work and other duties inside the prison. turally, this proximity led to much familiarity between jailors and inmates, with some favoured inmates even being allowed to move outside prison walls freely and return to their cells by nightfall. Can the State prison authorities now affirm that such shocking laxity is no more allowed in their prisons? It is significant that the State Home Secretary has recently mentioned manpower as one of the ‘holes’ in State prisons that Dispur intends to plug, along with other holes in jail infrastructure.
Whether for undertrials or convicted prisoners, life inside any prison in Assam has been shown up as among the stiest in the country, by government figures itself. The tiol Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) prison records for the year 2013 reveal that Assam figured third among the top five states with the highest rates of untural deaths (per thousand inmates) in prison. This apart, prisons in Assam were found to be overcrowded, with most overcrowding in the 22 district jails. The situation has not improved as shown in the Diphu jailbreak last month, with the prison at the time reportedly holding as many as 569 inmates against its capacity to house only 260. If prisons are overcrowded to more than double their capacity, surely it is asking for trouble. Added to this overcrowding is the acute manpower crunch of warders, jailors and guards, and the situation is ripe for brazen jailbreaks. The State Home department has also been sitting upon proposals to strengthen vigil like setting up watch towers in jail premises, raising heights of boundary walls and installing CCTV cameras at strategic points. There are also questions about the security assessment around prisons, about idequate numbers of policemen guarding the periphery. Then there is the critical shortage of doctors in prisons, and the situation amounts to violation of human rights. There have been frequent press reports of barely one doctor looking after hundreds of prisoners in even central jails like those in Guwahati, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, gaon and Silchar. The plight of inmates is further compounded with erratic supply of medicines, rations and prison uniforms. It is clear that the Home department has much to do to put State prisons in some form of order. Hopefully, a top policeman at the helm of affairs will bring a degree of much-needed professiolism in prison administration and security.