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Mumbai: In March 2020, as COVID-19 infections first began to be reported in India, the Supreme Court suo motu ordered every state government to urgently set up systems to decongest their respective state prisons.
Following the court’s order, most states set up high-power committees and devised their own systems to release prisoners.
An order of such consequence and subsequent measures taken by state governments should have ideally ended up decreasing prison congestion since 2020. On the contrary, prison population has dramatically increased and as of July 17, over 6,22,585 prisoners are crammed in the same space meant for 4,03,739 people in 1,378 prisons. This means the prison occupancy rate in the country is over 155%.
This is perhaps the first time that Indian prisons are facing such unprecedented overcrowding. According to the National Crime Bureau’s data, available until 2020, the national prison occupancy rate has mostly oscillated between 115% and 118%. There has been over a 30% jump in the last two years, and more importantly, this steep rise has occurred even when most states were compelled to release prisoners on parole and emergency bails as part of pandemic de-congestion measures.
On July 16, raising this concern, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, at a meeting of the National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa) in Jaipur, Rajasthan, said: “In our criminal justice system, the process is the punishment. From hasty indiscriminate arrests to difficulty in obtaining bail, the process leading to the prolonged incarceration of undertrials needs urgent attention.”
He quoted the figure of 6.1 lakh prisoners in the country’s 1,378 prisons. In a matter of a day, the number had already jumped up from 6.1 lakh to 6.22 lakh prisoners.
While there has been an alarming rise in these numbers, the actual prison population comprises nameless and defenceless citizens of the country.
The data suggests that over 70% of those arrested belong to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes, across religions. Also, over 80% of the total prisoners are pre-trial detainees who have been awaiting their trial for years. In some cases, they have been waiting for several years more than what any probable sentence that their alleged crime would attract.
Traditionally, states like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Punjab and West Bengal contribute to the major chunk of the prison population. For instance, as per the National Crime Report Bureau data for 2020, Haryana’s occupancy rate was at 105.78% with 20,423 prisoners being forced to live in the space meant for 19,306. But the latest data uploaded on the National Prisons Information portal, which is updated in real time, shows, that the condition has worsened manifold, taking the number to 43,277, which means a 224.16% occupancy rate.
Similarly, Uttar Pradesh, notorious for contributing close to one-fourth of the total prison population, with the occupancy rate of 167.9% (1,01,297 prisoners lodged in its 72 prisons meant for 60,340), today has 119,958 prisoners. This means the occupancy rate has further risen to 198.8%.
|States||Original capacity||Prison population, as per 2019 NCRB data||Prison population, as of July 17, 2022||Occupancy rate|
Note: Data was drawn from the NCRB 2020 report and the National Prisons Portal.
To explain the implication and probable reasons behind this dramatic surge further, let us look at one state closely – Maharashtra.
By end of 2019, in Maharashtra’s 64 prisons (with a capacity of 24,095 prisoners), the number of prisoners housed was 36,798. This meant the occupancy rate was at 152.2%. But as of July 17, the prison occupancy rate has dangerously crossed over to 180%, taking the total number of prisoners to 43,476.
The state government has strangely blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for this enormous rise in prisoners.
Following the apex court’s order, like most states, the Maharashtra home department too decided to divide prisoners under different categories – based on the nature of the crime they were booked for – to release them either on parole or emergency bail.
As announced, 17,000 prisoners were indeed released. But that did not help bring the numbers down. While, on the one hand, the high-power committee, set up under the Supreme Court’s direction, passed orders to release prisoners, on the other, the state police went on an arrest spree. The number by the end of the third phase of the pandemic (around January-February this year) was still around 37,000.
Prison officials that say around the end of April, those who were released on temporary provisions began to slowly return to prison. At the end of April, 38,298 prisoners were lodged across 60 central and district prisons of the state. In May, the number further jumped up to 40,946. At the end of June, 43,205 prisoners were forced to live in the limited space and with resources meant for almost half, i.e, 24,722 prisoners. In July, the number jumped further.
The data, made available by the prison department, indicates that by July 15, 6,425 prisoners who were released on temporary bail had returned. Another 3,259 prisoners, who were on parole, surrendered. This was a situation that practically no one in the prison department had anticipated or prepared for. A senior prison staff, handling the data for the state prisons, shared that once prisoners began to return, prison officials began writing to Maharashtra’s Additional Director General of Prisons in distress. “We have received complaints but no solutions so far,” a senior jail official said.
Going by the overall occupancy rate, it appears that almost three prisoners are forced to live in a space meant for two.
But when you break the numbers down and look at individual prisons, the situation gets grimmer. Yerwada central prison in Pune, one of the largest facilities in the state, housing both pre-trial detainees and those convicted, 7,152 prisoners occupy space meant for 2,449 prisoners. This takes the prison occupancy rate to 292%, with almost three prisoners in a space meant for one.
The worst impact of this sudden rise in the number of prisoners is seen in prisons of Mumbai and adjoining cities. The Mumbai central prison, more commonly known as Arthur Road jail, has 3,636 male prisoners struggling for space available for 804. Similarly, the Kalyan district prison, which can house 505 male and 35 female prisoners, is handling 2,125 prisoners, as of July 17. That translates to four prisoners in space meant for one.
A closer look at the ground space per prisoner will give a better sense of the actual situation in prison.
In Maharashtra, the ground space per prisoner is set at a meagre 1.19 square metres, as against the 3.71 square metres recommended in the Model Prison Manual. The Maharashtra prison manual which underwent an overhaul in 2015 has revised ‘ground space per prisoner’ on paper, but is yet to expand its facilities. Imagine an average four-floor-tile space in the corner of an apartment. That’s how much space is made available right now to each set of four prisoners in most jails of Maharashtra.
When the number of prisoners rise, neither space nor expenditure rises proportionally. The resources, already scarce, have to be distributed among higher numbers of prisoners each day. Food, clothing, toilet facilities, water supply, medical care, prison staff, education, and vocational training are all areas where the crunch is felt.
The Supreme Court and its countless, yet unimplemented, directions
The March 2020 order by the Supreme Court was not the first or last in this regard. In recent years, the apex court has time and again harped on the prison overcrowding issue and has pressed for appropriate measures. The Supreme Court had, in February 2016, emphasised that Article 21 of the constitution requires a life of dignity for all persons, and lamented that little appears to have changed on the ground as far as prisoners are concerned. It considered the issue of their health, hygiene, food, clothing, rehabilitation, and so on, and ruled, “Prisoners, like all human beings, deserve to be treated with dignity.”
Subsequently, in 2018, the apex court set up a Committee on Prison Reforms, headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice Amitava Roy. The committee was to submit a final report within three months. In March this year, the apex court gave, after several extensions, yet another six-month extension to the committee.
As recently as July 11, a bench of Supreme Court Justices S.K. Kaul and M.M. Sundresh proposed the introduction of a comprehensive bail law in India to deal with the rising pendency in bail applications in the country. The bench observed that arrest is a “draconian” measure that should be used “sparingly”.
“In a democracy, there can never be an impression that it is a police state as both are conceptually opposite to each other,” the bench cautioned. It reiterated that the principle ‘bail is the rule and jail is an exception’ is the touchstone of Article 21 of the constitution.
The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here.