Friday, June 8, 2001, Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Punjab jails or killer cells?
Sarbjit Dhaliwal
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, June 7
Are Punjab jails turning into killer cells for prisoners and undertrials? This question needs an answer going by the fact that more than 170 inmates have died since 1997. While most of these deaths have been “unnatural”, reports of torture, including branding and negligence by the jail authorities are not uncommon.

The latest case is the death of an undertrial, Gurnam Singh, in the district jail at Kapurthala on May 25. The inquiry officer has reportedly indicted the jail authorities for not providing timely medical aid to the inmate. However, Gurnam Singh is not the first inmate to die in a jail this year.

According to official information, nearly 10 inmates have died since the beginning of this year in jails. Among them were Ranjit Singh, Palwinder Singh, Ram Singh, Surjit Singh, Gurdial Singh, Ram Lal, Mann Singh and Farooq. The cause of death in most cases has not been established as the postmortem reports have not been received by the authorities concerned.

All these are suspected to be unnatural deaths. In the case of death because of prolonged or chronic illness or due to a heart attack, the postmortem report is made available immediately by the doctors concerned. The postmortem report is kept pending only in cases where the viscera have to be sent to the Chief Chemical Examiner at the State Laboratory in Patiala to ascertain whether the death is due to poisoning or not.

In fact, the trend of not pinpointing the cause in cases of suspected unnatural death of inmates started in February, 2000. And this appears to be a deliberate act on the part of the jail officials concerned. For example, Joginder Ram died in Bathinda Central Jail on February 21 last year but in his case the report of the Chemical Examiner had not been made available to the jail authorities at the state headquarters till recently.

Likewise, Mohinder Singh, Raj Singh, Rajinder Kumar, Bagh Singh, Sonu, Manohar Singh, Fehra Singh, Gurdit Singh, Ajit Singh, Mangal Singh, Paramjit Singh, Joginder Singh, Riaz Singh and Jagjit Singh died between February and December last year but neither the reports of the Chemical Examiner nor the postmortem reports had been made available to the jail authorities in these cases till recently.

Normally, the report of the Chemical Examiner is available within three months or so. But in sensitive cases like the death of an inmate it could be obtained at the earliest possible by making a special request through the proper channel. Informed sources say that the authorities in jails try to delay the receipt of postmortem reports to hush up cases of unnatural deaths. Why postmortem reports are delayed for long periods should be the subject of a separate judicial probe, they say.

There have also been cases of alleged suicide by inmates. According to jail records, Vijay Kumar committed suicide in the Kapurthala jail on January 13, 1997. Ranjit Singh hanged himself in the Sangrur jail on February 14, 1997. In the same year Kashmir Singh in the Ferozepore jail also hanged himself. But the most bizarre case related to the death of Hukam Chand in the Patiala jail. According to the jail authorities, he died on December 13, 1997 when a cistern in the toilet fell on him. On April 7, 1998, an undertrial Rajinder Kumar, took a fatal dose of drug.

An undertrial, Malkiat Singh, died in the Patiala jail on May 18, 1999, after consuming a poisonous substance and another undertrial, Tirlok Singh, died in the Gurdsaspur jail on August 28,1999. He hanged himself, according to the jail authorities. On June 6, 2000, a convict Jaggar Singh, committed suicide in the Amritsar jail. There are several cases of death of inmates due to tuberculosis. The list is long. But these are a few examples to show the sorry state of affairs in Punjab jails.

Though action had been initiated against a number of officials in jails after their negligence was proved in cases of death of inmates, the process is very slow. Vijay Kumar died in the Kapurthala jail in January, 1997, but the show-cause notice to the jail officials indicted in his case was not served even three years after his death.

Mr Ajit Singh Kohar, Minister of Jails, said that if the negligence of the jail staff in a death case was proved, action was taken promptly. He claimed that nothing was wrong with the jails. When asked about the high number of deaths in jails, he said the government was trying to provide the best facilities there. “We can only provide facilities to them but cannot prolong their life”, he added. 

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