By Nusrat Khan:
Let me start by asking you to consider a difficult scenario. I may just be able to convince you that crazy improbable things do happen in this world. Also, if at any point while reading this blog you find yourself confused, don’t worry, this is exactly how I felt when the following events were unfolding.
Imagine being locked up in your house. This might have happened due to a miscommunication between you and other family members, or because they forgot you were inside. Let’s say you’re without any means of communication with the outside world and your neighbours don’t really care. Bottom-line – you’re just stuck for months. None of this is your fault and you have no way to find out how and when you will be able to get out.
Personally, if I were in this position, I would be very angry and exasperated because nobody is doing anything to get me out or has even noticed that I am missing. What do you think?
Earlier this year, I met an undertrial prisoner Prajwal (name changed) in Mysore Central Jail (MCJ) who was stuck in a similar circumstance. An undertrial is someone who is in jail pending trial.
I found out about Prajwal’s case through a Right to Information (RTI) application asking for details of undertrials who had spent more than half of their possible maximum punishment in jail without being convicted. Please remember, all throughout the pendency of a trial, an accused person is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. This is a principle enshrined in our justice system.
Just a few other legal details to help you better understandÂ what follows. According to Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure, an undertrial who has spent more than half of the maximum punishment for which he may be convicted, has a right to make an application before the court for release on a personal bond – with or without surety. The section also explicitly states an obvious fact: no undertrial prisoner may be kept in jail if he has spent time equal or more than the maximum punishment which he may be granted on conviction. Quite straightforward!
As per the details furnished by MCJ, Prajwal had spent 3 years 5 months and 23 days in jail for an offence which attracted a maximum punishment of 3 years (the RTI response did not specify the offence but only the maximum punishment). My reaction was the same as yours – why is he still in jail? He had after all spent more time than what a conviction would have brought.
Here’s the story of why I went to the MCJ on 12th February 2014. The Jail Superintendent and Jailor initially told me that Prajwal had been released the previous week. I still insisted that I be allowed to go through his prison records purely for research purpose. After some hesitation, I was taken to the Assistant Jail Superintendent who would show me the prison records.
What happened next displays – in a nutshell — how prisoners can and do get lost in the system.
A jail official overheard us talking about Prajwal’s case and told me that he was, in fact, standing outside. I was confused because the Jail Superintendent and Jailor had just told me that he had been released.
The Assistant Superintendent called Prajwal in and through him (and not the jail authorities), I found out that there were 14 cases against him, a majority involving charges of theft. He had spent a total of 4.5 years in jail on account of all these cases. On checking the jail records on paper, we found he had been acquitted in 11 cases (the last being as recent as 6th February 2014). Only 3 cases remained pending in Bangalore courts.
Prajwal was very confident that he had no cases pending against him and that he had also been acquitted in all 3 cases in Bangalore a long time ago. However, he did not have any documents to support this claim. He also couldn’t remember the names or details of the court appointed lawyer representing him in the Bangalore cases.
The MCJ authorities, on being asked about Prajwal’s version, kept referring me back to their records. To them, nothing could challenge what was in those dusty poorly-maintained registers. I left MCJ with 2 contradictory versions of Prajwal’s case status.
If Prajwal was correct about his acquittal in the Bangalore cases, then every second that he spent in jail beyond the last date of his acquittal amounted to unlawful detention.
On returning to Bangalore, I went about verifying Prajwal’s account and my worst fears came true.
I visited the courts where the 3 cases were allegedly pending. After a long day at the court, I found out that all 3 cases against Prajwal had been disposed as far back as 2011 (two on 4th December 2010 and one on 5th May 2011). What disturbed me most was that nearly 4 years later, the prison records at MCJ had not been updated. The jail authorities had no clue whatsoever about this development. Where does one even start to pin down accountability? Do you blame the prison authorities, or the court, or the lawyers, or the police escorts?
Prajwal had already spent 24 days in unlawful detention. He had not been convicted in any of the 14 cases. He could have applied for bail soon after he was detained, but he couldn’t, because of financial constraints and lack of access to good legal advice.
Put yourself in Prajwal’s shoes and try to think about his frustration and anger.
When I contacted MCJ authorities, I learnt that Prajwal had been transferred to the Bangalore Central Jail (BCJ). I rushed to BCJ with certified copies of the judgements in the 3 cases. I brought them to the notice of the Director Inspector General of Police. His first reaction was as expected: “This is not possible.”
We were asked to submit an application stating our account and attaching copies of the 3 judgements. That’s all it took. Prajwal was summoned from his cell. He recognized me instantly and gave me a beautiful smile. On being told that he would be released that very day, he first looked confused, then ecstatic. He was asked to quickly complete his check out/release procedure including property handover, physical verification etc.
I had no idea that he could be released so quickly. I remember asking my colleague: “will they actually release him? Will it happen today?”
They did. And all it took was 45 minutes.
After nearly four and a half years of being in prison as an undertrial, Prajwal walked free. Four and a half years of freedom lost, or freedom regained after four and half years. You decide.