Why We Need to Talk About the Condition of India's Prisons

Indian prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. Unless these issues are dealt with, prisons will remain hellish for the socio-economically disadvantaged.

The recent media uproar over allegations of irregularities in the Bengaluru central prison and the subsequent transfers of two senior IPS officers should have made the state of prisons in India a topic for an informed debate at the national level. But that was not to be.

The management of prisons falls exclusively under the domain of the state government, as per the seventh schedule of the constitution. In every state, the prison administrative machinery works under the chief of prisons who is a senior ranking IPS officer. Indian prisons face three long-standing structural constraints: overcrowding, thanks to a high percentage of undertrials in the prison population, understaffing and underfunding. The inevitable outcome is sub-human living conditions, poor hygiene, and violent clashes between the inmates and jail authorities.

Rampant overcrowding

According to the Prison Statistics India 2015 report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India’s prisons are overcrowded with an occupancy ratio of 14% more than the capacity. More than two-thirds of the inmates are undertrials. Chhattisgarh and Delhi are among the top three in the list with an occupancy ratio of more than double the capacity. The prisons are overcrowded by 77.9% in Meghalaya, by 68.8% in Uttar Pradesh and by 39.8% in Madhya Pradesh. In absolute numbers, UP had the highest number of undertrials (62,669), followed by Bihar (23,424) and Maharashtra (21,667). In Bihar, 82% of prisoners were undertrials, the highest among states.

Sixty seven percent of the people in Indian jails are undertrials – those detained in prisons during trial, investigation or inquiry but not convicted of any crime in a court of law. The share of the prison population awaiting trial or sentencing in India is extremely high by international standards; for instance, it is 11% in the UK, 20% in the US and 29% in France.

More than 25% of undertrial prisoners in 16 out of 36 states and union territories have been detained for more than one year in 2014; Jammu and Kashmir tops this list with 54%, followed by Goa (50%) and Gujarat (42%). UP leads in terms of sheer numbers (18,214).

With over a staggering 3.1 crore cases pending in various courts of the country as on March 31, 2016, jails across the country will remain overcrowded in the absence of any effective systemic intervention. Nearly 43% of the undertrial population accounting for roughly 1.22 lakh undertrials remains detained for more than six months to more than five years by twhe end of 2014. Many of them have spent more years in prison than the actual term they would have served had they been convicted.

According to NCRB records, out of these 2.82 lakh undertrial inmates, over 55% are Muslims, Dalits and tribals. Collectively, these three communities form a population of 39% with a share of 14.2%, 16.6% and 8.6% of population respectively according to 2011 census. But the proportion of prisoners, both convicted and undertrials, from these communities is larger than their share in the country’s population. As far as conviction is concerned, they seem to get convicted faster than the rest as they account for 50.4% of all convicts. Among Muslims, the community’s share of convicts is 15.8%, slightly above their representation in population, but their share among undertrials (20.9%) is far higher. Among all convicts, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes have a population of 20.9% and 13.7% respectively, which is fairly higher.

As a matter of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian constitution, undertrials are presumed innocent till proven guilty. But they are often subjected to psychological and physical torture during detention and exposed to subhuman living conditions and prison violence.

Many lose their family neighbourhood and community ties and, more often than not, their livelihoods. Moreover, prison time attaches social stigma to them as individuals and as community members. Even their families, relatives and communities are not immune to disgrace and humiliation. Even after their acquittal, undertrials find their employability severely jeopardised for none of their faults.

Undertrials tend to have restricted access to legal representatives. Many undertrials are poor people accused of minor offences, locked away for long periods because they are not aware of their rights and cannot access legal aid. Lack of financial resources and a robust support system, and the limited ability to communicate with lawyers from within the jail premises hamper their ability to defend themselves in the court of law. This despite a landmark Supreme Court ruling that Article 21 of the constitution entitles prisoners to a fair and speedy trial as part of their fundamental right to life and liberty.

Undertrials often remain behind bars for years despite the provisions of Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which came into effect in 2005. This section mandates the release, on personal bond with or without surety, of undertrial detainees who have been imprisoned for half the maximum sentence they would have received if convicted for the offence they are charged with. This section does not apply to those who could be sentenced to death or life term. But 39% of those charged for crimes under the Indian Penal Code couldn’t be punished with life term or death penalty, Prison Statistics 2014 show.

Severe staff crunch

While 33% of the total requirement of prison officials still lies vacant, almost 36% of vacancy for supervising officers is still unfulfilled. Delhi’s Tihar jail ranks third in terms of a severe staff crunch. The manpower recruited inside this prison is almost 50% short of its actual requirement. As the nation’s capital, Delhi has the most over-crowded jails and suffers from acute shortage of prison guards and senior supervisory staff. States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand have the most scantily guarded jails, seeing over 65% staff vacancies among jailers, prison guards and supervisory levels.

In the absence of adequate prison staff, overcrowding of prisons leads to rampant violence and other criminal activities inside the jails. In separate incidents, 32 prisoners escaped in Punjab in 2015, while in Rajasthan, the number of such cases has risen to 18. Maharashtra witnessed the escape of 18 prisoners. In 2015, on an average, four prisoners died every day. A total of 1,584 prisoners died in jails, 1,469 of which were natural deaths and the remaining 115 were attributed to unnatural causes. Two-thirds of all unnatural deaths (77) were reported to be suicides, while fellow inmates murdered 11, nine of which were in jails in Delhi. About 12,727 people are reported to have died in prisons between 2001 and 2010.

If a professional gangster or a white-collar criminal is willing to grease the palms of the prison official, he can have mobile phones, liquor and weapons inside the jail premises. On the other hand, the socio-economically disadvantaged undertrials can be deprived of their basic human dignity at the hands of the state machinery.

No wonder the department of prisons has always been a sought-after portfolio for some of India’s elected representatives with scores of criminal cases registered against them.

In the absence of a robust Whistleblower Protection Act and structural changes to address the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, India’s prisons will continue to be heaven for politically connected criminals and hell for socio-economically disadvantaged undertrials, some regular media uproars notwithstanding.

Basant Rath is 2000 batch IPS officer who belongs to the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. Views expressed are personal.