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Indian prisons need a facelift

Prisons of our country have always been portrayed as rehabilitation centers, who intend to ensure that every prisoner learns the value of life and live in a better way. But sadly, the story is completely different, almost every time. Prisoners often try to escape, while many attempt suicide. With the increase in overcrowding of the Indian jails by prisoners, the Supreme Court has now raised this issue to the High Court after the negligence of the state government regarding the concerned matter.

Criminal lawyer Abbas Kazmi stated, “Overcrowding does exist since 25 years in Indian prisons. For example, in Arthur Road jail there is a capacity of 800 prisoners instead the number of prisoners lodged there is 2000. So there are more chances of internal conflict between prisoners facing inconvenience, and causing frustration leading to assault inside the jail premises. The government gives assurance to consider this problem but no steps have been taken yet. A major reason for custodial death is gang war inside the jail.”

Referring to the overcrowding of jails, the SC had been unsuccessfully asking states for a decongestion plan since May 6, 2016. The government had said that the ministry would look into the matter and take necessary steps within three weeks. After the revelations as per the National Crime Records Bureau that about 149 of 1,401 jails are congested by 200 per cent across the country, and in some other cases it has reached beyond 150 per cent of the capacity which compelled SC to direct all the High Courts to consider the issue as it involves “violation of human rights”. The Centre also requested to take up this matter as a suo motu (on its own) writ petition.

Zamir Khan, Rehmani group North Mumbai President said, “The condition of Indian jails is very bad especially in the city. It has over exceeded than capacity. Animals are living in better condition as compared to prisoners. There are more youngsters especially from slum areas who commit petty crimes to get imprisoned for free food and shelter.”

He further added, “Judicial system is slow and there is inadequate number of staff. It is necessary to provide good medical facilities in the jail.”

While prisons have been recognised as a correctional facility worldwide, Indian prisons are still governed by a 123-year-old law – The Prisons Act. The prisons that were built in the colonial era, and are in a constant need of repair as they are just like the Act that governs them: rusty, outdated, neglected which directly impacts the prisoners.

Retired DYSP M.I.Sheikh expressed, “This is an inhuman reality. Few jails were built during the British era and there is no change in infrastructure due to which prisoners face various health and psychological problems. Due to plenty of empty space available in the jail premises, there is a chance of prisoners to get influenced by people hailing from the criminal background. So there is need of bifurcation and classification of prisoners according to their crimes and their background.”

“Criminal justice system needs to be changed from grassroot level. Overcrowded jails defame our judicial system in the world. So there is a need of structural changes in our custodial system,” he added.

Twice as many inmates die committing suicide in our jails than 15 years ago. According to the reports, in 2015, at least 77 of the 1,584 people committed suicide. There are three times more mentally ill prisoners than a decade ago. Only one psychologist is available for every 23,000 prisoners. What this statistic fails to capture is the feeling of being stuck in a dark, dingy enclosed area where privacy is non-existent, there are threats of bodily violations constantly looming, also the entry of ‘more guests’ implies the quality and quantity of food and sanitation suffering further.

PSI of Yerwada Jail Ashok Dhere said, “Health camp is being organised inside the jail. We conduct medical checkup and health camps to ascertain the physical and mental health of prisoners from time to time. And talking about overcrowded prisoners in the jail, this subject comes under jurisdiction from top authority.”

In the Model Prison Manual 2016, the minimum accommodation space per prisoner in Sleeping Barracks suggested is 3.71 sq mt and 8.92 sq mt of ground area in Cells, but money and power determines the floor space you get to stretch your legs, as the prison capacity gets reduced on the ground, which is not reflected in official figures.

The government needs to build more prisons, remodel existing ones, and employ more staff to make their functioning more transparent and humane. While the data reveals the alarming levels of overcrowding, but it is still understated and the state government acts uncared about the same.

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