On August 29, 2021, a forum of South Asian rights activists named South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN) held a discussion regarding the 'Rights of the Incarcerated in South Asia'.
In that discussion, speakers claimed that the jails in Bangladesh are among the worst in the South Asian region, and offered evidence to hold up their claim.
Evidence suggests that Bangladesh holds the highest prison occupancy rate as well as the highest proportion of pre-trial detainees among the South Asian countries.
The discussion precisely demonstrated that overcrowding along with abysmal sanitation and hygiene, lack of privacy, low-quality beddings, and insufficient healthcare facilities are the reasons for such deplorable conditions in South Asian prisons.
Some may argue: why should we care about the prisoners? They had their chance and they blew it, right?
Well, we need to remember that conviction of a crime does not make a person any less of a human being, and that person should be treated with the same basic human rights available to everyone.
We need to remember that conviction of a crime does not make a person any less of a human being, and that person should be treated with the same basic human rights available to everyone.
Even our High Court Division addressed the prisoners' condition on September 21, 2021 with an order where a bench of Justice M Enayetur Rahim and Justice Mustafizur Rahman directed the authorities concerned to accelerate the recruitment to fill up 29 vacant posts of doctors in prisons all over the country.
This order from the High Court Division illustrates that the authorities concerned have been unsuccessful in mitigating the prisoners' miseries.
With overcrowding prisons as well as insufficient healthcare facilities, the circumstances became complicated for the government to maintain the international human rights standards for prisoners.
No doubt, the global community considers the human rights of prisoners as a significant matter of concern. Moreover, several major international instruments are there to guarantee their rights.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) forbid torture and inhuman treatment in any circumstances.
Article 10(1) of the ICCPR states that all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of human beings. As Bangladesh is committed to ICCPR, this provision ultimately ascertains how prisoners should need to be treated.
Another pertinent aspect is Article 10(3) of the ICCPR, which states that the prison system should aim to reform and social rehabilitation of prisoners.
Unfortunately, the conditions and system of our prisons do not exemplify any aim to reform and social rehabilitation of prisoners. Besides, the recent news regarding prisons confers that the authorities concerned have a lack of enthusiasm to reproduce the aim written in the ICCPR.
The human rights of the prisoners are also well protected under our domestic law, as well as the constitution of Bangladesh. Fundamental rights, i.e., are the basic rights of a citizen guaranteed by the constitution, cannot be taken away in any situation.
In this context, the Indian Apex Court has a significant observation in the case of State of Andhra Pradesh v Challa Ramkrishna Reddy and Ors , where the court stated "a prisoner, be he a convict or under-trial or a detenu, does not cease to be a human being. Even when lodged in jail, he continues to enjoy all his Fundamental Rights including the Right to Life guaranteed to him under the Constitution. On being convicted of a crime and deprived of their liberty in accordance with the procedure established by law, prisoners still retain the residue of constitutional rights".
In different cases, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh reaffirms that our constitution guarantees fundamental rights also for prisoners. Not only that, in the case of Bazlul Huda v The State , the Appellate Division of Supreme Court of Bangladesh provides vital observation on the matter of a prisoner's human rights by stating that, "The question of basic human rights of a prisoner inside the jail ought not to be lost sight of as his conviction of a crime does not reduce him into a non-person".
So, it begs the question: with an occupancy level of 195.8% (according to World Prison Brief), how will the Department of Prisons serve basic human rights facilities and privileges in the prisons?
There are some outmoded domestic laws concerning prisons and prisoners in our country; one of them is the Prisons Act, 1894. In 2018, Inspector General (Prison) was expecting to amend this Prisons Act, 1894 along with the jail code, within the year of 2019.
According to him, the amendment would benefit the prisoners. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for those amendments. Furthermore, I believe, merely amending the laws or rules cannot ensure the prisoners' rights unless we can produce a better implementation process.
The government should, therefore, revise the jail code and amend the outmoded prison-related laws in a way that complies with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules).
We expect that the government would also follow other international instruments pertaining to prisoners to set the standard such as the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (Beijing Rules).
Nevertheless, until that amendment happens, our government has the responsibility to offer proper infrastructures, a humane environment for rehabilitation, and enough healthcare facilities for prisoners' survival.
The Department of Prisons also has to make aware the prisoners about their rights to avoid potential ill-treatment of prisoners by influential or powerful people inside the jail. Prisons staff and officers should have the proper training, and their training manual should comply with United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Fahad Bin Siddique is a student of LLM at UNESCO Madanjeet Singh South Asian Institute of Advanced Legal and Human Rights Studies (UMSAILS), Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.