The need for police reform has been stressed on several occasions, perhaps to only limited avail. Yet in extending a call for a “humanistic approach” to at least one aspect of the prisons system the apex court has done well to remind the authorities that reformation of convicts was one of the objectives of awarding jail terms.

Dealing with the specific issue of parole and granting of furlough to those serving long sentences, a Bench of Justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan directed the government to update the rules famed more than half a century earlier, and described those rules as “skeletal” in nature.

Furlough and parole, they said, allowed convicts to maintain social ties, which could be encouraged where the person displayed a tendency to be reformed.

At a time when furlough is often seen as a “concession” that has been abused (the case of a popular Bollywood star springs to mind), and even the granting of bail is popularly perceived ~ in some sections of the media too ~ as a dilution of the law, the court made bold to point to a distinction between conviction and condemnation.

Yet their Lordships simultaneously insisted that a convict must serve out the full term of his/her sentence ~ maintaining the requisite balance between punishment and humane considerations.

Dealing with parole and furlough rules, the court said “there is an imperative and immediate need for updating these rules…. so as to provide suitable guidelines” and it continued that in this context “his release from jail for a short period has to be considered as an opportunity afforded to him not only to solve his personal problems but also to maintain his links with society.”

Their Lordship struck an eloquent note : “Convicts too must breathe fresh air for at least some time provided they maintain good conduct consistently during incarceration and show a tendency to reform themselves and become good citizens.

Thus redemption and rehabilitation of such prisoners for good of societies must receive due weightage…” The court emphasised that “when we recognize reformation as one of the objectives, it provides justification for letting of even the life convicts for short periods on parole, in order to afford opportunities to such convicts not only to solve their personal and family problems but also to maintain their links with society.”

With odd exceptions, Indian jails are notorious and most jail manuals were scripted before the thought of “reform” entered the penal process. The observations of Justices Sikri and Bhushan, read along with some other recent pronouncements from the apex court, ought to serve as the basis for wider debate.

A pity that the most elevated debating forum in the land is so focused on political diatribe that prison reform will elude the attention of our lawmakers.