This article has been authored by Divya Sharma, a second year law student at National Law University, Jodhpur.
According to the Black’s Law Dictionary, solitary confinement refers to “the separate confinement of a prisoner, with only occasional access of any other person, and that only at the discretion of the jailer; in a stricter sense, the complete isolation of a prisoner from all human society, and his confinement in a cell so arranged that he has no direct intercourse with or sight of any human being, and no employment or instruction.” In Kishore Singh Ravinder Dev v. State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court defined solitary confinement as a confinement constituting of complete separation and isolation of the prisoners from other co-prisoners and segregation from the outside world of the prison.
United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners has defined solitary confinement as a confinement for twenty-two or more hours with no human contact. Solitary confinement has been a topic of debate since a long time due to its nature and effect on the prisoners. Our first Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru, in his autobiography has expressed the pain that solitary confinement inflicts on the prisoners. He has argued how solitary confinement slowly deteriorates the mind of the confined leading to insanity. These issues have been raised time and again by several activists, writers but still the idea of solitary confinement has its place in Indian Legal Justice system. The objective of the article is to analyse how solitary confinement has evolved in India and how it violates certain constitutional rights of the prisoners.
The nature of Solitary Confinement
While Supreme Court itself recognises solitary confinement as an ‘extreme measure’, still the demerits of it which make it eligible to be abolished, are being ignored. This isolation in form of solitary confinement matches what can be called torture as defined in a few international human rights conditions and therefore it constitutes a violation of Human Rights. The United Nations Convention against Torture defines the term torture as “a kind of the state-punishment act ―by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person‖ for information, punishment, intimidation, or for a reason based on discrimination.” All these factors bring up the question that whether solitary confinement is essential or is it violative of Indian Constitution and the rights of the prisoners? Solitary confinement is not only against the spirit of Indian Constitution and the rights of the prisoners, but it also degrades the mental condition of the confined and instead of reforming, causes greater torment to the prisoner which impacts their ability to live in a normal social setting. In order to curtail this cruel punishment or to make the world understand its demerits, United Nations introduced CAT (Convention Against Torture) which held that “solitary confinement is a torture, it is a wound in the soul so painful that sometimes you can almost touch it, but it is also so intangible that there is no way to heel it.”
The Supreme Court of India has observed that “prisoner is a human being, a natural person and also a legal person. Being a prisoner, he does not cease to be a human being, natural person or legal person. Conviction for a crime does not reduce the person into a non-person, whose rights are subject to the whim of the prison administration and therefore, the imposition of any major punishment within the prison system is conditional upon the absence of procedural safeguards.” It is important to understand that courts not only have the right to judge and convict someone, but also have duty towards those detained. Thus, courts should take measures to ensure that detenues have freedom from torture and are kept safe in the custody. As William Blake said, “Prisons are built with stones of Law”, so, when human rights are harassed behind the bars, it is violation of law and the sanctity of those walls that are supposed to be the symbols of justice and reform.
How is solitary confinement violative of the Indian Constitution?
In our constitution there is one fundamental right that has been in spotlight for the most time and that is Article 21. Solitary confinement is violative of the very essence of this fundamental right that forms the basic structure of our constitution. This article provides the right to life and personal liberty and thus confining a person alone without any human contact, within concrete walls in the name of reformation is very much a violation of this right. In Unni Krishnan & Ors. V. State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors the Supreme Court held that the right against solitary confinement is a part of the Right to Life in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In several cases arguments have been made against solitary confinement and it has been reiterated how it is against basic human rights and is capable of causing mental illness, physical pain and suffering.
One of the landmark Indian judgements on rights of the prisoners is Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration. In this case the court held that “prisoners are entitled to all fundamental rights which are consistent with their incarceration.” In this case, prior to the punishment, the convict was under remand for two years. Due to these facts, the Court held “that taking away his life after keeping him in jail for 10 years, and almost eight years of was spent illegally in the solitary confinement is a violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Article 21 of the Indian constitution.” Right against solitary confinement was further discussed in Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration. In this case the Supreme Court held that “every prisoner has a right against solitary confinement, handcuffing & bar fetters and protection from torture.” Thus, these cases and their judgments reflect on the cruel nature of solitary confinement and explain how the punishment of solitary confinement is detrimental and needs to be done away with.
Another right under Article 21 which is Right to Live with Human Dignity is violated by solitary confinement. If we look at the quality of life of a prisoner in solitary confinement, it can be deduced that it’s a life of isolation, mental illness and torture thereby violating the Right to Live with Human Dignity. The act of prohibiting a person from even minimal human contact hampers the very human growth and causes several psychological problems. In Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of India Bhagwati J,, held: “We think that the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely, the bare necessaries of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head and facilities for reading writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and commingle with fellow human beings.”
It was in Jeeja Ghosh v. Union of India, that the court recognised Right to Health as a right enjoyed by the prisoners as well. Thus, keeping them in solitary confinement is a blatant violation of their fundamental rights and it is a treatment that reduces them to objects which are subject to the whims and fancies of the prison administration. Therefore, the rights of the prisoners need to be protected by the justice system and the treatment that they are given should not be ruthless and torturous.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study finding that “people placed in restrictive housing (also known as solitary confinement) are more likely than their peers to die or be re-incarcerated in the first year after their release from prison.” This study explored the detrimental effect of solitary confinement on mortality rates and has emphasised on the urgent need for reforms in prison administration. The study explained, “The practice of solitary confinement is inhumane and has failed to make jails and prisons safer, and on the contrary has made the confined incapable of assimilating in the community after getting released.” It is argued by those in favour of solitary confinement that it prevents a high-risk prisoner from committing suicide, but the report aforementioned shows the opposite. It has been proved by a study that prisoners confined in solitary confinement have shown more tendency to self-harm.
Another right under Article 21 which is violated by solitary confinement is right to health. In Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, the Supreme Court held that “the results of long solitary confinement are disastrous to the physical and mental ill health for those who are subjected to it.” Whether it is a convict or not, humans are considered social beings and thus depriving them of any social contact results in mental illnesses, most of which leave life-long impact even if treated. Moreover, it defeats the very purpose of prisons. The Idea of Indian Legal system is to reform the convicts; however, solitary confinement has proved to make the confined more aggressive, prone to self- harm and has made them incapable to intermingle with the society again. Thus, it can be inferred that solitary confinement as a provision under IPC, violates our constitution as it violates the basic concept of common natural human dignity and denies the basic human rights of the people. Moreover, it causes significant mental illness and suffering thereby violating the Right to health. It is high time that India takes a stand against such inhumane treatment given to the prisoners and recognise that conviction of a person does not reduce him to a non-person, unalterable, being.
Indian Legal System has always believed in giving a person a chance of reform. The walls of prisons aren’t just made of concrete, they are symbol of reformation, of hope that bad can be made good. However, the provisions like solitary confinement defeat this very idea that Indian Justice System symbolizes. Solitary confinement is an inhumane treatment given to any human being, be it a convict or any other person. Just because a person has been convicted of a wrong does not make him eligible for torture. There are many effects of solitary confinement that cause deterioration of mental and physical health and peace. There are psychological and physical illnesses which a prisoner suffers under solitary confinement. Solitary Confinement leaves a long-lasting effect on many prisoners due to which instead of getting reformed they turn out to be worse offenders. We as a nation have always taken punishment as a way to make a convict realise his/her mistake and give him/her a chance to reform. However, resorting to solitary confinement not only takes away the chance of any reform, it tortures a person mentally and physically which is not only morally wrong but also against our Constitution.