The Supreme Court of India recently acknowledged that the more than a century-old system of prisons in India needs reforms. In pursuance, the Supreme Court formed a committee on prison reforms headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice Amitava Roy.
- With an average occupancy rate of 115% of their capacity, Indian jails continue to remain congested and overcrowded, numbers in the National Crime Records Bureau’s “Prison Statistics India – 2017” report have revealed.
- In 16 of the 28 States covered in the report, occupancy rate was higher than 100%.
- More than 68% of those incarcerated are undertrials, indicating that a majority are poor and were unable to execute bail bonds or provide sureties.
Issues related to imprisonment in India:
- Sub-human living conditions – The prisons in India have horrible living conditions . The problem of lack of water and hygenic food, problems relating to sanitation and living space etc. are common across prisons in India.
- Overcrowding in prisons – In India, as per the Prison Statistics India, brought out by the National Crime Records Bureau observes that In 2015, there were nearly 4.2 lakh inmates in 1,401 facilities, with an average occupancy rate of 114% in most.
- Large number of undertrial prisoners – Undertrial prisoners accounted for 62% of India’s prison population, against the world average of 18-20%. Many of them have spent more years in prison than the actual term they would have served had they been convicted. The statistic raises questions about the humaneness of our system.
- Inadequate staff/lack of trained staff – 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. For example, in Uttar Pradesh Only 5,000 prison staffers monitored over 92,000 inmates in Uttar Pradesh .
- Condition of women in jails – Of the total 1,401 prisons in India, only 18 are exclusive for women, housing 2,985 female prisoners. Thus, a majority of women inmates are housed in women’s enclosures of general prisons. There were separate areas for women in other jails, but there was a severe lack of space. Such jails are not modelled to house women inmates, especially those with minor children staying with them.
- Torture in prisons – 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. The brutality and venality of prison officials is a common complaint.
- Lack of legal advice – 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.
- Custodial deaths – 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.
- Differential treatment for the affluent and politically connected – Even the Supreme Court observed that influential prisoners watched TV shows on sofas and “enjoy life” in prisons.
- Law Commission suggestions – The Commission recommended that those detained for offences that come with a punishment of up to seven years of imprisonment should be released on completing one-third of that period and for those charged with offences that attract a longer jail term, after they complete half of that period. For those who have spent the whole period as undertrials, the period undergone should be considered for remission. It also recommended that the police should avoid needless arrests, while magistrates should refrain from mechanical remand orders.
- There is a need to sort the inconsistencies in the bail system as recommended by Law Commission of India in its 268th report in May 2017.
- More funds must be allocated to improve the conditions of prisons in India. More Jails could be built or capacity in increasing prisons could be increased.
- The undertrials must be provided with financial and legal aid to expedite the justice delivery process. In addition, as suggested by the Supreme Court, interim steps like allocating social service duties to criminals sentenced to imprisonment for six months or a year must be implemented. Counsellors and support persons for prisoners, particularly first time offenders must be provided.
- Monitoring and surveillance mechanisms should be made more effective to ensure that cases of custodial torcher, custodial death and preferential treatment do not occur.
- Special attention should be given to women prisoners and children born in custody, creches and nurseries must be built.
- Additional prison staff must be recruited after adequate training.
- Reducing arrests for actions unless there is a cognisable offence made out.
The focus should be on reforms rather than punishment – Incarceration in any form is uncivilised, especially when it is so long-drawn-out, and when the objective of criminal punishment should be one of reform rather than wreaking vengeance on a perpetrator of crime. The primary motive of the criminal justice system should be to reform the criminal rather than punish him/her.
A system of holding undertrials for too long without a just trial process in overcrowded prisons that suffer problems of hygiene, management and discipline, is one that is ripe for recidivism. There is a greater chance of prisoners hardening as criminals rather than of them reforming and getting rehabilitated in such jail conditions.