On 5th July it will be the first death anniversary of that most unfortunate and horrifying custodial death of a brilliant and caring Jesuit Priest our late Fr. Stan Swamy. It is high time to revisit the jail rules as it was absolutely improper to have detained a person like Fr Stan in jail despite him being over 80. Those that are elderly who have to be kept in detention could be possibly placed under house arrest or in old age homes where their age related special needs are taken care of.

Prison ensures social isolation and confinement which can result in deterioration of mental and physical health through neglect and fear, especially in the elderly and the vulnerable. Far from achieving the desired outcome of reformation and the leading of law abiding and useful lives in prison as well as when they are released, their time in prison can be a retrograde step where they suffer ill health and even death. Those that survive will be more resentful of the prison machinery and society.

Prisons should only be used to reform and to protect the peace of those on the street and for providing a sanction against very serious wrongdoing. The detention of people over the age of 80 in poorly kept prisons suffering frailty or other illness is a sad reflection on society and a failure to deal with people humanely. It can also be a waste of taxpayers’ money. Their reform and health must be cared for and addressed in a different and special way.

Almost everyone over 80 is grappling with serious health issues so the jails are not conducive for such aged people. Elderly persons admitted to jails require a different sort of health care. Concerns about the health status of older inmates and their chronic health issues has to be addressed in a special way and the inability of most jails to accommodate their special needs cannot be just overlooked.

Prisons have a duty of care towards all prisoners and must take all reasonable steps to keep them safe while in custody. The prison has a responsibility to ensure the safety of prisoners – which includes protecting those at special risk of injury or who are vulnerable. The prison system must never be inherently unjust and inhumane. The elderly if they are lucky to be back on the streets, will emerge as severely ill and demoralized human beings staring at tragedy through lack of care. This cannot be a true reflection of a caring and progressive society. 

We should take heed of the wise words of Christopher Zoukis, a leading voice on criminal justice reform in America and author of many books on prison life, when he said ‘If we treat prisoners like animals, the whole time they are locked up, that’s what we will get when they are back on the streets. – wild, dangerous animals.’

In the case of Fr Stan Swamy, the Courts should have taken Suo Motu cognizance, but the Judiciary failed by not rising to the occasion. Fr Stan may be physically gone but his life and works for the community specially the marginalised will inspire us for a long time to come. Let’s hope that his death will trigger a much needed reform to the prison system and the welfare of our elderly. A true tribute for his great Soul would be that we as conscious citizens do not allow social activism to fade away in us being cowed by the Powers to be.

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