Recent statistics show that not even 1% of the jails in India are being monitored according to law while prisoners continue to live in sub-human conditions.
Pink – the recent Taapsee Pannu, Amitabh Bachchan blockbuster that addresses the horrors faced by a woman falsely accused of a crime – is much closer to fact than you might think.
It has a scene in which a lead character falls ill behind bars unable to bear the trauma of her arrest following trumped-up charges. While the film goes on to challenge the arrest and accusations against her, it ends up meekly accepting the hellishness of that lockup – as if approving India’s penal system.
Reality is not much different. Nearly every prison in India emits a strong stench of decay caused by systemic and human malfeasance and impropriety.
This is because the power dynamics of the Indian penal system clearly lays out the role of the oppressor and the oppressed. The state has complete control over the lives of those who have lost their liberty. Combine this with the failure of any monitoring systems and we have a perfect recipe for despair, torture and ill treatment. An upcoming report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, titled ‘Looking into the Haze: A Study on Prison Monitoring in India’ finds that not even 1% of the jails are being monitored according to law. This means of 1387 jails in the country, less than 13 are properly supervised.
Do we understand the gravity of this stark fact? It means that a place that houses mostly the poor and uneducated and those crushed by the system (who, by the way, have not been proved a threat to society) are not only deprived of their freedom and contact with the outside world, but also their voice.
Government statistics stand witness to this. In 2014, the most recent figures available, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, India’s 1387 jails held 418,536 prisoners when the countrywide capacity was 356,561. An examination of state-by-state numbers was far more alarming, with some state prisons housing twice as many prisoners as they could hold. There were jails with an outrageous 500% occupancy. A look at the following statistics underlines the challenge:
• Seven in 10 prisoners in the country were either illiterate or educated only up to high school
• Nearly 70% of the Indian prison population had not yet been proved guilty
• Across the nation there was just one guard for every nine prisoners
• One medical staff for every 228 prisoners and
• One correctional staff for every 712 prisoners
Since 2001, the proportion of undertrials (prisoners to still be tried and convicted) that have spent more than three years behind bars has doubled, the number of mentally challenged prisoners has tripled and not even 2% of all prisoners have been rehabilitated. In 2013, the National Human Rights Commission found the likelihood of suicide behind bars was 1.5 times greater than outside prison walls.
Personal accounts of visitors to these jails reveal these places are overwhelmingly populated with those who tackled poverty and faced marginalisation before ending up in jail. The so-called ‘model facilities’ are rife with tales of torture and lesser spaces are breeding spaces for sexual and drug abuse. Most house the unwanted, forgotten and banished. These morbid places are even more striking as they function with no semblance of transparency. Worse, the burden of this fatal opacity is borne solely by the hapless inmates and no one else.
In 2013, national and international media played out the story of Vijaikumari, a woman from Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, who was locked up in jail for 18 years before Kanhaiya, her son was able to secure her release. Kanhaiya was born and raised in jail by his mother for the first six years of his life and then sent to a government shelter home where he learnt tailoring.
Years before, following her arrest on charges of murder, she had been granted bail. It was set at Rs 5000. Her husband found the sum unreasonable, his pregnant wife undeserving and abandoned Vijaikumari to her fate. Eighteen years later, when her barely adult son moved court, it immediately ordered her release and questioned in disbelief how people who were obliged to monitor the jail and its inmates had failed to notice her plight all those years.
The recent advisory by the Ministry of Home Affairs further restricts access to NGOs and researchers to prisons with its insistence on a hefty security deposit, overbearing scrutiny of visitors and stringent censorship of written and filmed material. Opening up prisons may not instantly solve problems of overcrowding and underfunding but it would create a trail of powerful documentary evidence of problems that plague prisons. Something the government cannot ignore.
Such a step could create an atmosphere where both the prisoner and the prison official have an outlet to vent their concerns. There would be a better chance of their voices getting heard. Making prisons accessible to those who can reform prisoners would be a strong departure from a custodial philosophy based on keeping jails closed to ensure security.
With a five-fold hike in the prison budget over the last 15 years, the penal system remains dysfunctional. Prison reform may take years, even decades, to become reality but we must ask ourselves –is there something fundamentally wrong with society’s focus on isolating, instead of reforming, the prisoner?
Mrinal Sharma is a project officer at the Prison Reform Programme of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.