Fifty-year-old Darshan Singh, who was serving the final year of his sentence at the Central Jail in Bhatinda, Punjab, died following a sudden fit of convulsions. This death in custody would have slipped by unnoticed had it not been for the facts that were thrown up by a private study carried out by Dr. Vineeta and Ved Prakash Gupta, under the aegis of the NGO, Insaaf International. The results of this investigation were published in a report titled 'Caged Human Rights' released on July 7, 2003. In the wake of Darshan Singh’s death, the report focuses on the troubling issue of human rights conditions in prisons in Punjab, and exposes the stark difference between rhetoric and reality.

The official version of Darshan Singh’s death reports him to have suffered from convulsions at about 10.50 AM on the day of the death. Immediately after he reported at the jail hospital, he was shifted to the civil hospital, Bhatinda, after receiving first aid. Death is reported to have occurred at 11.25 AM. However, the investigation report presents a different picture. After talking to inmates, family members and some confidential sources, the Insaaf team discovered that Darshan Singh was rushed to the jail hospital at about 10 am after having reported his convulsions. The doctor was absent, and the pharmacist refused to call the doctor as he declared nothing to be the matter. He then gave the patient an injection and asked his fellow inmates to wait.

But Darshan Singh became more serious. On his friends’ protests the doctor was called, and he was referred to the civil hospital. For about 40 minutes he lay unattended, till the jail vehicle was summoned to take him to the civil hospital. Eyewitnesses at the jail disclosed that he was literally thrown in the foot space at the back of the vehicle with his legs hanging out. He was not provided any IV drip, oxygen, or any kind of required aid, though the jail authorities claim otherwise. Witnesses at the civil hospital also confirm that Darshan Singh was brought to the hospital, lying in the foot space with his legs hanging out.

He lay there in that position while the jail and hospital authorities discussed whether to declare him dead or alive upon arrival. The two parties finally reached some conclusion, but by then it was too late. Darshan Singh was already dead.

The Punjab Jail Manual is the statutory authority governing the conditions and facilities that are to be provided to the prisoners in jail.

  • Paras 670 – prescribes the length of working day and asks for fortnightly weight measurements of prisoners in order to determine health of the prisoner.

  • Paras 712, 713, 716, and 717 – deal with the incidence of custodial death and its report to be made to the inspector general of police and the medical officer as soon as possible after the event.

  • Para 996 of section 1, chapter XXXIX – provides regulations for the accommodation capacity of wards, cells and other compartments intended for occupation by prisoners.

  • Para 999 - capacity of wards must be inscribed over the door and this must include the class of prisoners, the superficial area in square feet, amount of air space it contains in cubic feet and the number of prisoners housed.

  • Para 1013 - precautions against over-crowding. If there is such a possibility, the inspector-general and superintendent of police shall be informed.

  • Para 1038 – asks for classification of prisoners according to health, and the description shall be termed as either “good”, “bad”, “indifferent”.

  • Para 1058 - sick prisoners may be given light work.
  • Matters didn’t end here. A board of three doctors was constituted to conduct the post-mortem, but apparently only one of them attended. The post-mortem itself was conducted 24 hours late, with no reason being cited. No cause of death, probable cause or opinion was mentioned in the report. One of the doctors - according to the Insaaf team that spoke with the doctor - showed complete unawareness of procedural regulations regarding post-mortems or the model autopsy form prescribed by the National Human Rights Commission.

    Darshan Singh’s custodial death is a case in point, reflecting on the grim scenario prevalent in most prisons in Punjab. While the written rules guarantee prisoners’ rights and regulate prison conditions, but very little of this gets translated into practice.

    During the course of its investigation, Insaaf came across gross violations of human rights in prisons. Proper allocation of living space, hygienic living conditions, efficient management of prison administration, and proper and prompt medical care in jails in Punjab, were all conspicuous by their absence. Further, instances of inhuman, degrading treatment, ‘concealed’ physical and mental torture like long sun exposure in summers, prolonged physical work even during ill health, delay or refusal to provide medical care, discrimination in getting utilities, refusal of interviews with family members, and illegal access to drugs, also came to light. What makes matters worse is the insensitivity and lack of training on the part of officials regarding reforms.

    The details that are unearthed about prison conditions are alarming. Take the issue of overcrowding in jails – one important cause for lack of decent living conditions. Some prisons house more than double their official capacity of prisoners. One glaring example is that of Bhatinda Jail, where, at present there are 1,111 inmates against its authorised capacity of 600. Almost the same is the case with the Jalandhar jail that houses 1,041 inmates against its capacity of 600. In the Sangrur jail, the number of inmates on March 31 was 714 against its capacity of 300. In the Amritsar jail, the population on March 31 last was 1,819 against its official capacity of 1500. The Jail in Muktsar is virtually spilling over. In this jail, the number of inmates is 152, three times its capacity.

    Understandably, the levels of hygiene and living conditions that exist under such circumstances are very poor. More than double the number of users end up using the toilets everywhere. Blocked or overflowing drain systems are common. In many prisons, the inmates who are allowed to cook food do so in front of the small place adjacent to toilets. According to reports Punjab jails are overflowing with under-trials. Despite clear directions of the Supreme Court, the measures to regulate bail, parole and speedy trial are ignored, resulting in ever increasing number of inmates. In some of the cases poor and underprivileged prisoners languish in jails longer than the sentence they might receive for the charges they face. In some of the cases, under-trials are known to have ‘confessed’ to the crime, simply because they had already served the sentence for that offence, and could be released earlier that way.

    INSAAF International
    Kishori Ram Hospital Building,
    Basant Vihar, Bhatinda, Punjab,
    Phone : 91-164-215400
    Fax : 91-164-214500
    INSAAF Online
    Following Darshan Singh’s case, the Insaaf team talked to many former inmates of Bhatinda jail to know the conditions and medical care situation while in custody. Without exception, the feedback suggested that inmates have no chance of survival in a medical emergency due to lack of prompt and efficient treatment. Just getting to the prison doctor who lives about half a kilometre away in the outer boundary of the prison land can sometimes see the end of a patient who needs urgent medical attention. Patients with non-serious condiitions are simply neglected. The situation is similar in prisons in other parts of the state.

    Further to this investigation, Insaaf intends to co-ordinate and collaborate with national and international human rights groups to bring focus on prisoners’ rights in Punjab.