KOZHIKODE, Kerala — He is an undertrial accused of alleged Maoist activities and has nearly 40 cases against his name but its Kerala’s first high-security jail in Viyyur, Thrissur that 48-year-old Roopesh has put in the dock, accusing it of rampant abuse and blatant rights violations.
In a letter to the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court, the law graduate says strip and cavity searches are routine at the high-security jail. There is a complete lack of privacy, with CCTVs continuously monitoring activities of inmates, even toilet breaks. “This takes away even the residue of privacy of the prisoner,” Roopesh alleges.
The Viyyur facility is one of the four high-security jails in India meant for “high-risk” prisoners, such as those convicted of terrorist and anti-national activities.
Roopesh’s accusations of “infringement of fundamental rights assured by the Constitution of India” against Viyyur High Security Prison comes at a time when people are increasingly being charged under the country’s stringent anti-terror and security laws.
The Kerala High Court on September 20 quashed UAPA and sedition charges against Roopesh but is yet to respond to his letter which he wants to be treated as a petition. A copy of the letter is with HuffPost India.
Behind the walls
It was on July 8, 2019 that Roopesh and 25 others were brought to Viyyur High Security Prison. The 26 men were the first inmates to be housed in the facility.
Roopesh was arrested in May 2015 from Coimbatore in neighbouring Tamil Nadu under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, for alleged Maoist activities and was sent to the central prison in the city.
These charges were among 43 cases slapped against Roopesh. He represents himself in all these cases. He was shifted to the Viyyur Central Prison in 2017, and then to the high-security prison in July this year.
A few days after he was moved to the high-security jail, Roopesh filed a petition in the Ernakulam additional sessions court, alleging a violation of rights. He repeated the allegations in his petition to the State Human Rights Commission.
Five years after its foundation stone was laid, Kerala’s then home minister Ramesh Chennithala inaugurated the facility in 2016, but it was only recently that the first inmates moved in.
The Viyyur High Security Prison is built on a nine-acre compound that cost Rs 22 crore, more than half of which has been spent on security and biometrics. The three-storey facility can house 535 inmates in 192 cells, 60 of which can only hold a single person.
These prisons were meant to house “terrorists” and such “high-risk prisoners” who worked against the state, Superintendent of Prisons AG Suresh told HuffPost India. They “should not be given all the allowances given to other prisoners”, and that was the reason the high-security facility was built, he said.
Since Roopesh was shifted out, the prison houses 70 inmates. Of these, 30 face charges under UAPA, National Investigation Agency Act and other laws involving national security, he said.
‘Cavity searches, solitary confinement’
His letter, Roopesh says, is a plea for help, not just for him but for all the inmates of the high-security facility.
The prison authorities, with the help of the Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) commandos, routinely carry out cavity searches even after he protested, his letter says.
The searches violate the Kerala Prisons and Correctional Services (Management) Act, 2010, which says that prisoners should not be subjected to “unnecessary, harassment, humiliation and ignominy”.
Roopesh alleges the jail authorities overlooked Supreme Court orders, the Indian Penal Code and the Kerala Prisons Act by keeping inmates in solitary confinement for prolonged periods. He was “locked inside the prison cell for days and nights and was barred from meeting other prisoners”.
While the Kerala Prisons Act prohibits “unreasonable solitary confinement”, the Supreme Court says “solitary confinement is a revolt against society’s human essence”, Roopesh writes.
CCTV cameras follow the most private of the moments of the prisoners, including the time availed for toilet facilities, Roopesh says. He cites the 2017 Supreme Court order which declared the right to privacy was an extension of the right to life and personal liberty.
Inmates are denied a view of the outside world. A louvre prevents the view of the sky and surroundings, painting a picture of the severity of confinement, Roopesh says. Kerala rules define a prison as a correctional facility that encourages reform and not a punitive facility, which strips the prisoner of the last of human comforts, he says.
The prisoners, he says, are denied their right to work, promised in the Kerala Prisons Act and state’s prisons rules.
The violation of rights is more severe for prisoners charged under UAPA. Of the 43 cases against him, Roopesh claims, 18 are “based on fabricated documents” about procurement of a SIM card, conducting political campaign and distributing pamphlets.
He says he doesn’t have grave charges such as murder, bomb blast, kidnapping or causing hurt against him. “Is UAPA a valid reason for taking away all the fundamental rights?” he asks.
Constitutional law experts back Roopesh’s argument.
“You do not lose your rights at the doorstep of the prison,” advocate Gautam Bhatia told HuffPost India. Prisons imposed restrictions because in India imprisonment was considered an act of punishment, but “these restrictions should be valid and cannot be in violation of basic rights,″ Bhatia said.
The Supreme Court, too, had ruled on many occasions that by default solitary confinement couldn’t be imposed for long duration and without a valid reason, said Bhatia, who has authored the book The Transformative Constitution (2019).
The right to dignity of the prisoner should be preserved. Hence, handcuffing and solitary confinement should not be imposed indiscriminately, Bhatia said.
Kerala’s Director General of Prisons Rishi Raj Singh was not available for comments when contacted by HuffPost India.
Superintendent Suresh AG, in two replies filed in July before the additional sessions court, denied Roopesh’s allegations.
Denying cavity search, Suresh told the court that prisoners were stripped in a separate room that provided privacy and dhotis were supplied to “safeguard dignity”.
IRB personnel were employed to ensure the security of the prison and were allowed to carry out searches, which were done to prevent prisoners from smuggling contraband items. Hundred mobile phones, huge quantities of ganja, tobacco and other prohibited items were seized during “recent searches”, the court was told.
Citing prison rules and laws, the officer said high-security prisoners like Roopesh were housed in separate cells to avoid “unnecessary mingling of ideas against the interest of the country”. The purpose of the high-security prison was to “segregate anti-national elements who deserve a close watch…to protect the larger interest of the country,” the court was told.
Prisoners like Roopesh were allowed to mingle with others for a short duration. Prisoners charged under the National Investigation Agency Act, 2008, and those remanded for alleged Maoist activities were allowed out of their cells for 45 minutes a day, the reply said.
It was the Supreme Court that had asked prison authorities to “install CCTVs in all jails to protect the interest of prisoners”, (suicides are common in prisons), it said. The toilet area, however, was “masked” in the video, the reply said.
There was no violation of the prisoners’ rights as the “jail authorities (had) acted in accordance with the act and rules with all necessary statutory backing,” the court was told.
Talking to HuffPost India, Suresh denied that Roopesh was kept in solitary confinement. “He was placed under separate confinement and was provided all facilities,” he said. Roopesh could even be brought back to the high-security prison if the sessions court would accept the state’s arguments, he said.