Insights into Editorial: The state of Indian prisons
In the midst of the election process this year, the release of the data-driven report, the Prison Statistics India 2016, published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in April went largely unnoticed.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is an attached office of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
It was established in 1986 with a mandate to empower Indian Police with information technology solutions and criminal intelligence.
This edition of the report is different from its earlier versions on account of its omission of certain key demographic data. Despite these gaps, the report raises a number of red flags signalling the rot in India’s prison system.
The Prison Statistics India 2016:
The report tells us that at the end of 2016, there were 4,33,033 people in prison; of them 68% were undertrials, or people who have yet to be found guilty of the crimes they are accused of.
India’s under-trial population remains among the highest in the world and more than half of all undertrials were detained for less than six months in 2016.
The most significant shortcoming of the report lies in the NCRB’s failure to include demographic details of religion and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe status of prisoners, which are crucial to understanding India’s prison population.
This information was consistently published for the last 20 years and instrumental in revealing the problematic overrepresentation of Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis among under-trials in prisons.
In 2016, out of 1,557 undertrials found eligible for release under Section 436A, only 929 were released. Research by Amnesty India has found that prison officials are frequently unaware of this section and unwilling to apply it.
Rising the incidents of Concern:
The 2016 prison statistics do not mention the number of prison visits by official and non-official visitors which typically include district magistrates and judges, social workers and researchers.
This is essential to uncover torture and other forms of ill-treatment, increase transparency and balance the power asymmetry in prisons.
Smuggling a prohibited article into a prison is a punishable offence under Section 42 of The Prisons Act, 1894.
The list of prohibited articles is long and varied: apart from mobile phones, it includes drugs, intoxicants, alcoholic drinks, smoking pipes, wireless sets, metal, expensive jewellery, arms and ammunition, explosive materials, and even items as innocuous as a rope or a pen nib.
Overcrowding and understaffing are definitely critical issues.
- For Instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the State has 70 jails. Their total sanctioned capacity is 58,000. But the actual number of inmates is almost double that.
- At the same time, as against the required staff strength of at least 9,000 warders, the State has only 4,000. With such mismatched numbers, combating smuggling was never going to be easy.
Managing such a large number of prisoners is not always possible. Those with the means to bribe prison guards waste no time in doing so, and they reach a tacit understanding.
The prisoner also ensures his activities remain under the radar so that the guards do not get into trouble. As for the guards, they do everything from turning a blind eye to actively helping the smugglers.
Mental health concerns: Need of psychologist or psychiatrist in Prisons:
The NCRB has said that about 6,013 individuals with mental illness were in jail in 2016.
It does not provide information on whether these prisoners were diagnosed with mental illness before entering prison, making it difficult to determine whether prison conditions worsened their plight.
The relevance of prison visits is underlined by the number of “unnatural” deaths in prisons, which doubled between 2015 and 2016, from 115 to 231.
The rate of suicide among prisoners also increased by 28%, from 77 suicides in 2015 to 102 in 2016.
- For context, the National Human Rights Commission in 2014 had stated that on average, a person is one-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide in prison than outside, which is an indicator perhaps of the magnitude of mental health concerns within prisons.
The report states that there was only one mental health professional for every 21,650 prisoners in 2016, with only six States and one Union Territory having psychologists/psychiatrists.
Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the three States with the most prisoners with mental illness, did not have a single psychologist or psychiatrist.
In 2017, the Law Commission of India had recommended that undertrials who have completed a third of their maximum sentence for offences attracting up to seven years of imprisonment be released on bail.
Perhaps the NCRB should consider including the number of such undertrials in its upcoming report for informing the policy on the use of undertrial detention.
The NCRB’s apparent reluctance to be prompt and open about its prison statistics does not bode well for the democratic discourse in India.
This suggests that the high proportion of undertrials in the overall prison population may be the result of unnecessary arrests and ineffective legal aid during remand hearings.
“Manpower is also an important factor,” says the official. “While there are several vacant posts in the Prisons Department, almost all the prisons in most places are filled beyond capacity.
Finally, improving prison conditions has no political leverage. Just as humane prisons do not win votes, the bad ones do not lose votes for any political party.
All things considered, the report has important information which can be used to facilitate a dialogue on improving prison policies.
As long as there are no stakes here for lawmakers, one can hardly hope for model prisons, where inmates are accommodated with due regard to their basic human needs and are handled with dignity.