Overcrowding of Indian jails is really a matter of concern; each jail has a population of its own. There are several prisons where the congestion is well beyond 100 per cent and in some cases, it exceeds 150 per cent. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has expressed concern about overcrowding in prisons across the country and asked all the High Courts to consider the issue as it involves “violation of human rights”.
The apex court requested the Chief Justices of the High Courts to take up the matter as a suo motu (on its own) writ petition and referred to a note given by an advocate, assisting the court as amicus curiae, in this regard.
Supreme Court should review laws that violate the fundamental rights of the citizens. As per the data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 149 of the total 1,401 jails in the country had an overcrowding rate of more than 200 per cent as on December 2015. 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. No Central statistics are available on the actual space available to a prison inmate in different jails. However, a central scheme for modernisation of prisons, with a financial outlay of Rs 1,800 crores, was launched in 2002.
Under this scheme, 125 new jails were constructed and 1,579 barracks were added to existing prisons. Thereafter no such concrete infrastructure were made for Indian jails. A study on deaths behind bars reveals that on an average of almost 1,000 prisoners die in custody every year, and 90 per cent of them are undertrials. Statistics also revealed that most under trial punishments are converted into the death penalty. Also, the death of a prisoner is never considered as custodial death instead it is shown as a case of natural death. The prisoners who get life sentence are the permanent members in jail, and their numbers are increasing day by day. Biggest reasons for overcrowding in prisons are the overwhelming number of undertrials awaiting a verdict. According to the Prison Statistics India 2015 report, published in September 67 per cent (or 282,076) of the total 419,623 inmates in India’s 1,401 prisons are undertrials. Dadra & Nagar Haveli, with 276 per cent has the most overcrowded prisons, followed by Chhattisgarh (234 per cent) and Delhi (227 per cent).
If trials and convictions took place in a timely manner and the judiciary was working at full force the number of inmates in prisons would have drastically reduced. According to the report, more than 3,500 undertrials have been in jail for more than five years awaiting a trail — in many cases of the time, these undertrials would have spent in jail if convicted would be shorter. Another reason for a high number of undertrials is that many of them do not have adequate access to legal aid. Jails often become, and continue to be, places where criminals cool their heels while plotting future plans. Also, modernising of jails has been a project in the pipeline for far too long and it’s time some visible progress is made on this front.
Jails are meant to be correction facilities, where convicts are expected to realise their mistakes and are guided to become better citizens by the time they finish their sentence. In the process, they are also imparted skills to prevent them from going back to their old ways once their sentence is served. The basic purpose of a prison in a modern democracy is that of a correctional facility — but that’s not the case in India. The criminal justice system is not well served if jails continue to be in such a shuffle. Overcrowding in prisons has a direct, but often underrated, impact on the security of prisons, and health and hygiene of inmates. Jail authorities also agree that it has an adverse effect on the mental health of inmates.
The Centre also appraised the court that steps were being taken to encourage setting up of ‘open prisons’ and model uniform rules for the administration of open correctional institutions have already been framed. Semi-open prisons or open prisons allow convicts to work outside the jail premises and earn a livelihood and return in the evening. The concept was brought in to assimilate the convicts with the society and reduce their psychological pressure as they faced lack of confidence in leading normal lives outside. During the hearing, the amicus informed the apex court that there were 63 open prisons across the country but the existing capacity was not being fully utilised.
The state governments and Union Territory administrations should also seriously consider the feasibility of establishing open prisons in as many locations as possible. The court, which is hearing a matter relating to inhuman conditions prevailing in 1,382 prisons across the country, had earlier passed a slide of directions over unnatural deaths in jails and on prison reforms across India.
Suicide rates in Indian prisons were abnormally high. It could be attributed to anywhere between 5-11 per cent of the total number of prison deaths. Police brutality was often a major cause of such suicides. There is an urgent need to undertake steps to create a robust and impactful prison health system in order to tackle a great deal of these health associated problems that persist in Indian prisons.
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