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Brought to book

  • Published at 11:10 pm March 26th, 2019
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Reading and learning are part of the road to rehabilitation 

“Words are just words, a book never harmed anyone by itself …”

These words by Rob May might have encouraged a lot of people to read. We all know that reading increases knowledge, provides mental stimulation, and is a great source of stress relief. But does everyone have that privilege? Bangladeshi prisons restrict families from sending books to inmates, because its policies don’t say anything about it.

It is an issue no one is concerned about since there are bigger issues to work out.

Most prisoners, either juveniles or adults, spend hours inside cells thinking about their loved ones. A book can not only reduce their frustration, but keep them spirited.

Access to books can allow under-trial prisoners or convicts to stay connected with the outside world. The Dhaka Central Jail authority strictly monitors what the prisoners’ families send them as there may be non-permitted items.

Thus a department store is present at the prison premises which contains daily necessities. Anyone wanting to send anything to an inmate must buy from that shop, which the authority carefully inspects and passes inside in locked bags. Anything which goes against the prison policy, which in our case is books, is immediately confiscated.

There are no bookstores available in the prison establishment, although inside the actual jail premises there is a library and educational facilities which can be used by inmates who want to learn. But prison libraries are heavily underfunded, meaning it consists of only a few copies of the Jail Code, which many would not even want to read.

Speaking to a few under-trial prisoners, I came to learn that many are university students or are waiting to sit for public exams. Many of them want to utilize their jail time by preparing for their exams, but aren’t able to do so.

Our prisons are still governed by the Prison Act of 1894, and its guidelines can be found in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, the Lunacy Act, 1912, Police Act, 1861, to name but a few. None of these laws and rules talk about a prisoner’s right to read.

The UN Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners requires “every institution to have a library for the use of all categories of prisoners, adequately stocked with both recreational and instructional books, and prisoners to be encouraged to make full use of it.”

Clause 90 of this standard expressly states: “An untried prisoner shall be allowed to procure at his own expense or at the expense of a third party such books, newspapers, writing material.” 

Since Bangladesh is committed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of the United Nations, it becomes our duty to live up to its standards.

In prisons around Bangladesh, reading is either considered a luxury or a potential threat. But looking at prisons in other countries, our perception may change for the better. In the UK, families and friends can send books to prisoners; so long they are brought from four approved shops -- prisoners are allowed to have a total of 12 books in their cells.

Many US prisons are now distributing e-books to inmates as a way to modernize the reading experience. UK Justice Secretary Micheal Gove says: “People who are currently languishing in prison are potential assets to society. They could be productive and contribute.”

Our constitution safeguards the fundamental rights of every citizen of the country. Even those individuals in this lawful society who are behind bars are entitled to these rights. Article 39 of the constitution grants them the freedom of expression which no authority can take away.

Reading falls under such freedom, and it must be rightly upheld. Books are essential for the rehabilitation of the prisoners. It reduces the possibility of re-offending due to the positive effect it has on them.

A culture of learning needs to take root in our prisons. Examinees who are awaiting bail must be allowed to read their textbooks sent by their families.

They must not get deprived of building their careers just because they are in prison. It must not be forgotten that the jail is not just a place of confinement, but a correctional facility. 

Aiman R Khan is an Advocate, Dhaka Judge Court.