Defence and Security

Alarming overcrowding: India needs to build more prisons

Sep 5, 2017
By Raja Bagga
 
The annual report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says that the average overcrowding rate in Indian prisons is 14 per cent. What the report does not reveal is that 149 jails in the country are overcrowded by more than 100 per cent and eight are overcrowded by margins of a staggering 500 per cent. These alarming statistics were revealed in response to a question in the Lok Sabha on August 8. It also brought into focus the horrifying levels in Satyamangalam sub-jail in Erode district of Tamil Nadu, where 200 prisoners are "stuffed" into a space meant for 16 people.
 
The overcrowding rate actually oversimplifies an understanding of the problem. What this statistic fails to capture is the feeling of being stuck in a dark, dingy enclosed area where privacy is non-existent, where threats of bodily violations constantly loom, where money and power determines the floor space you get to stretch your legs, where the entry of "more guests" implies the quality and quantity of food and sanitation would further suffer.
 
Prisoners in India are usually housed together in mega dormitories, where inmates are kept in close proximity with little regard for dignity and basic living conditions. This is a far cry from the UN's Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which suggests that prison accommodation shall be mindful of "minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation".
 
While prisons have been recognised as correctional facilities worldwide, Indian prisons are still governed by a 123-year-old law: The Prisons Act. The prisons are like the Act that governs them: rusty, outdated, neglected. This directly impacts the occupants. Overcrowding takes a toll on already constrained prison resources and even makes separation between different classes of prisoners difficult.
 
The Bureau for Police Research and Development's report on implementation of the Mulla Committee recommendations revealed that 60 per cent of jails were unable to assign new prisoners to particular barracks or wards because of overcrowding.
 
Most Indian prisons were built in the colonial era, are in constant need of repair and part of them are not habitable for long periods. While the prison capacity gets reduced on the ground, this is not reflected in official figures. Also, undertrial (detainee) and convicted prisoners have to be housed separately. So do inmates with mental disabilities and those with communicable diseases. These segregations further impact the occupancy levels for inmates, but the occupancy rate does not account for this.
 
With high levels of understaffing, the situation becomes even worse. Due to lack of supervision, inmates are confined in their cells for longer hours. This increases the possibility of tensions and violence. With limited resources to manage and contain these incidents, the functioning of prisons also becomes order-oriented, so there is limited attention on correctional facilities, reform and the need for privacy.
 
If the overall objective is to make prison conditions "human", it is crucial to identify the primary causes for overcrowding. There is clearly a problem of both supply and demand. With 33 prisoners per 100,000 population, India has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world. If the state is unable to adequately house these prisoners, it is a reflection of the priority it accords to prison and, broadly, criminal justice. The government needs to build more prisons and remodel existing ones. The prison modernization scheme, which led to the constitution of 125 new jails, was discontinued in 2009. The government, when asked about its revival in the Lok Sabha, chose not to respond.
 
While government data reveals the alarming levels of overcrowding, it is still understated. The Indian government needs to build more prisons and employ more staff to make their functioning more transparent and humane.
 
(Raja Bagga is Programme Officer, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, CHRI. He can be contacted at raja@humanrightsinitiative.org)

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