It is heartening to learn that the Gauhati High Court has asked the Assam Government to constitute Mental Health Review Boards to inspect prisons and report on the condition of mentally ill inmates. The direction came on a Public Interest Litigation filed by an NGO, the Collaborative Network for Research and Capacity Building, which expressed concern about the inadequate treatment meted out to individuals with mental illnesses who were presently lodged in different prisons of Assam. The petitioner had contended that mandatory provisions under the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 were not being followed in Assam jails. In response the court noted that although a State authority to deal with the issue has been constituted, it has not so far set up the requisite number of Mental Health Review Boards, and directed that this should be done through consultation between it and the State Government within 45 days. The court also directed that the Boards so constituted shall immediately inspect the prisons concerned under their jurisdiction and place a report before it in regards to the conditions of mental patients and the service and care provided to them in such jails. There is no denying the reality that individuals with mental illnesses are some of the most unfortunate members of human societies and their place is not in jails but in mental institutions which have psychiatrists as well as facilities for therapy.
Yet the ugly reality is that an insensitive system often treats people with mental illnesses as criminals despite these not being responsible for their own actions. It is to be hoped that the court follows up on its laudable directives and ensures proper and more humane positioning and treatment for jailed individuals with mental disorders. At the same time, it is to be hoped that more NGOs step up to take cognizance of other drawbacks in our prisons and bring them to the notice of our courts. For instance, one such drawback is the endemic overcrowding of our prisons, a flaw tellingly exposed during the Covid-19 outbreak when the jails became serious hotspots for the disease. Overcrowding is responsible for the unhygienic environment prevalent in almost every jail as also the pressure on amenities for prisoners. Ironically, the phenomenon of overcrowded prisons in the State is related to yet another lacuna, the housing of an inordinately large number of under-trial inmates the determination of whose ‘guilt’ had been delayed for one reason or the other. Surveys have revealed that almost in every prison in the State the under-trials far outnumber convicts who have been tried and sentenced, with some of the former, arrested by the police for petty misdemeanours, spending more time in prison than the crime would carry. All this and more point to exigent requirements for holistic reform of our prisons, an aspect which requires judicial appraisal.