“Why are we being sent to jail again? Some of us have reformed, and our lives have completely changed. Why are they sending us back? I am an undertrial but I had been inside the prison for nine years. Due to emergency parole, I stepped out of prison for the first time. I will lose my job now. My family is once again reliving the trauma. I don’t think I will be able to apply for bail or plea for PIL to forgo my case.”
Amit* is full of uncertainty for the future. He is returning to prison after being out on interim bail for almost three years. Many prisoners like him considered these interim years to be an unexpected second chance at rebuilding their lives.
“After I went to prison, my father became depressed, and he died a short time later. During Covid, I was released on emergency bail, but I lost my sister [to the virus]. In the past two years, I’ve been working hard to make enough money to keep my house running and to support other family members. I’m not sure what will happen after I surrender with these new orders because there is no other earning member. I attempted suicide because I thought it was the only way out, but that would not have helped my family either. I’m stuck in a dilemma,” shares another prisoner.
Temporary release due to the pandemic
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the COVID-19 pandemic led to a total of 1,19,910 prisoners being released from Indian prisons between March 2020 and June 2021 on interim bail or emergency parole. In Delhi itself, more than 5000 inmates were released from Prison. This was done to clear out the prisons and stop the virus from spreading among the prisoners.
Court orders dated 23 March 2020, 7 May 2021, and 16 July 2021, led to high-powered committees being formed in each state and union territory to select the class of prisoners who could be released on parole or interim bail, subject to conditions. Prisoners were released based on a number of criteria, including their age, health, the offence committed, and the remaining period of sentence, among others.
Fast-forward three years to 24 March 2023. Another ruling by The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India: “All those undertrial prisoners and convicts who have been released on emergency parole / interim bail pursuant to the recommendations of the High Powered Committee in compliance of the orders passed by this Court have to surrender before the concerned prison authorities within 15 days.”
The order signals a significant setback in the lives of prisoners who had used the years since 2020 to make an effort at changing their thoughts and actions and worked hard to support their families and themselves; financially, emotionally and physically.
Making the most of a second chance
Stepping out of prison, whether after 10 months, 18 months, or more than 24 months, is a daunting challenge. And with the pandemic, when everyone’s life was on hold, those released had to adjust and try their best to reintegrate without much support.
It was a completely unexpected situation, and the joy of being released was mixed with confusion about what would happen next. What should I do to help myself and my family, they wondered. “The money many of us were earning by doing jobs within the prison will be discontinued. And several of us used to send money to our loved ones.”
Their first step was deciding where to go after release. Immediate challenges came up — some did not have a place to live because their home had been sold to fund their legal case, another’s partner had left them, and prisoners themselves were suffering from depression and did not know how to cope with this temporary release.
Eventually, many inmates went on to find employment – some in family shoe manufacturing, flour milling or catering businesses, others worked as servers in small hotels, and some took up studies for government exams. They took care of their families. They helped other prisoners during the pandemic by coordinating release logistics and rations. They did not tamper with any evidence or influence witnesses. They went to every hearing of the court, did not flee and made themselves available at all times.
“When I first came out, I came to know that my wife has left me and my daughter stays with my parents. My business was also shut down. I was shocked. I used to feel a lot of anxiety and stress even inside the prison. So, when I got released on bail I could not understand what to do next,” says Manish*. “Now the condition has become a little better but now I have to go back to prison, I am under a lot of stress. What will happen to my baby girl?”
Preparing to return to prison after three years
According to Prison Statistics of India (2021), the total inmate population in India is 5,54,034, with a total capacity of 4,25,609 for 1319 prisons. Among Union Territories, Delhi has the greatest rate of overcrowding (182.5%). With the recent Mach 2023 ruling, the return of the prisoners puts a further strain on not just the infrastructure but also the prison administration, with an overall impact on the criminal justice system. From the standpoint of prisoners and their families, it will have a domino effect on other systemic challenges such as mental and physical health, a lack of resources, reformation initiatives, and so on.
Project Second Chance, a Delhi-based organisation working with the incarcerated to reimagine prison systems in India, spoke to many prisoners in the days leading up to their surrender in April. Groups of prisoners shared with each other their fears about the lack of legal services, the psychological impact on their families, the financial hit, and the social impact.
Rishab says, “Many of the prisoners released on emergency parole or interim bail were aware that they would be required to return to prison, but we were also hoping that some measures of remission would have been considered on a case-by-case basis.”
Rizwan* adds that many of his other friends who were released believe that the way the judgement was announced was rushed and that 15 days does not justify the previous 1,095 days of building a better life for themselves and their families.
Many of them believe they are on the path to reformation and eventually, reintegration into society, and their return may not only create hopelessness and trauma but also a negative attitude and behaviours that can push a few back to a life of crime!
One of their main concerns about returning to prison is that they will have to wait for their case to be heard and then wait for the final verdict for several years. As one of them said, “During Covid when the prisoners were released it was not against any surety or on the basis of an application for bail by us. Now that we are being sent back, will we get legal services and facilities to get timely bail or release or do we wait for another 5-6 years or another pandemic?”
Supporting prisoners and their families
The need of the hour, as articulated by ex-prisoners and those returning to prisons, is timely and precise legal guidance and services for inmates. Support from civil society organisations to access prompt legal services, with minimal or no costs attached, would go a long way in helping individuals apply for bail or put in a plea for early release after surrendering – both options that are outlined for them in the Court judgement as well.
On the part of the authorities, prioritising the right individuals for release is an important step. This also indirectly solves for overcrowding of prisons and reduces the stress of prison administration. One way to expedite bail and parole applications would be to first assess a prisoner’s medical needs and those who are low-risk otherwise, and prioritise their release. Virtual bail hearings where possible would further help to expedite the process.
At a later stage, when the prisoners are out on bail, the authorities can continue to review and monitor their parole to help ensure compliance and reduce reoffending. For those prisoners that are released, small support groups and community spaces are emerging with the collaboration of NGOs and community organisations to aid prisoners’ rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
The interim Bail period ends
On 7 April 2023, before the 15 days surrender window was up, most prisoners returned to the prisons in Delhi as per the Court orders. The team at Project Second Chance and others continue to work with them and their families, providing legal support and counselling wherever needed. They have begun work on an intervention so that prisons can be better prepared to handle such situations with public health and natural disasters in the future.
*Name changed to protect the identity of the prisoners.