“We want justice for Ramkumar,” cry a group of protesters outside the Royapettah Government Mortuary. The 22-year-old engineer from Tirunelveli, who allegedly committed suicide on Sunday, is accused of murdering Swathi, a techie at the Nungambakkam railway station in Chennai on June 24.
Two days after his alleged suicide at Puzhal prison, there are more questions than answers with regard to the circumstances surrounding his death. While police officials say he bit a live wire, doctors at the Royapettah Government Hospital, where he was taken, confirmed that he died due to an electric shock. On Tuesday, pictures of the switchboard and dangling wires that Ramkumar had allegedly used were leaked to the media.
But given that Ramkumar had suicidal tendencies, having slit his throat at the time of his arrest, should the prison officials at Puzhal be held responsible for negligence?
A 2014 report by National Human Rights Commission titled, “Suicide in Prison” notes, “Since inmates in prison are under the safe custody of the State, thus, it is the responsibility of the State to ensure safety, security and wellbeing. In case of any negligence or violation, the State is vicariously liable for the acts of omission or commission on the part of jail authorities.”
V Kannadasan, a senior advocate and former prison counsel says, “This is definitely a case of negligence on the part of prison officials and the warder. When inmates are allowed to move freely, all precautions should be taken to keep the electricity box out of reach. This is negligence of duty.”
Kanadasan, however, points out that Puzhal is the most populated prison in the state with 2300 inmates presently and with only around 30 warders available. “One warder will be watching 200 prisoners in a shift. It is very difficult and not practical to watch these many inmates round the clock,” he argues.
But others indicate that there may be bigger issues with the Puzhal prison. Former Madras High Court Judge K Chandru told Newslaundry, “It was the responsibility of the jail officials to make sure that the accused was safe. Puzhal is said to be a state-of-the-art prison. Over the years there have been hundreds of complaints about drug smuggling inside the prison. Mobile phones were found among the prisoners. Not only should the death of Ramkumar be investigated, but also the state of affairs in the jail in the last five years.”
While an inquiry will shed light on how Ramkumar gained access to a live wire at Puzhal, the NHRC report provides clear guidelines on equipping prisons with a “suicide safe cell”. It suggests,
“All cells designated to house suicidal inmates should be as suicide resistant as possible, free of all obvious protrusions, and provide full visibility. These cells should contain tamperproof light fixtures along with smoke detectors and ceiling and/or wall air vents that are free of protrusions. In addition, the cells should not contain any live electrical switches or outlets, bunks with open bottoms, any type of clothing hook, towel racks on desks or sinks, radiator vents, or any other object that provides an easy anchoring device for hanging.”
While some experts are sceptical about the possibility of a prisoner “biting a live wire”, Kannadasan points to a 2010 case at the Coimbatore prison where a life convict, on the pretext of going to the library, climbed up a transformer and held a live wire, killing himself.
Although Ramkumar’s advocate Ramraj denied that he was depressed even on his last meeting with him on Saturday, questions are now being raised as to whether the inmate should have been on suicide watch. As per the Tamil Nadu prison manual, every prison is required to have at least two doctors, one psychologist, one pharmacist and staff nurses, however, advocate Sudha Ramanlingam notes that this is lacking. “The entire system is opaque and brutal. It is very hierarchical and the entire set up should be revamped.”
Another pertinent question being raised is whether Ramkumar should have been rushed to the closest government hospital – Stanley Medical College rather than to the Royapettah Government Hospital, nearly 18 kilometres away. Could timely medical aid have saved his life? As Advocate Commissioner, Sudha Ramalingam had recommended in a prison report submitted to the Madras High Court some years ago that Stanley Medical College be made the tertiary or the designated hospital for Puzhal Central Prison based on distance. Royapettah GH remains the only hospital with a dedicated convict ward in the city till date. “The state government said that it is still in the process of fortifying Stanley Hospital,” says Sudha.