The pandemic has put the spotlight on inhumane conditions in Indian prisons. Many prisoners are tested positive for COVID19. Their deteriorating health without any proper health care seen as a grave violation of human rights.
Present condition of Prison in India
Indian jails over-occupied
- A total of 1,341 prisons were functional in India as on 30thNovember, 2018. The total population of prisoners in India was 4.68 lakh against total sanctioned strength of 3.83 lakh.
- From 2016 to 2018, the total prison population in India has increased by 8.2% against an increase of 0.7% in the prison sanctioned capacity.
- Seven states, namely Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Meghalaya and Delhi have an occupancy rate of 150%
Huge number of undertrial
- Most of the prisons are full of undertrial prisoners, their numbers being highly disproportionate to those of convicts (declared guilty)
- An undertrial is a person who is being held in custody awaiting trial for a crime.
Shortage of Prison Staff
- The Prison Department has a perennial average vacancy of 30%-40%. This hinders implementation of Model Prison Manual and various jail reforms.
- Physical production of an accused for a trial in a court remains far below the aspired 100% in several States, mainly because of unavailability of sufficient police guards for escort and transportation.
- The preparation of food in kitchens is “primitive and arduous”. The kitchens are congested and unhygienic and the diet has remained unchanged for years now.
Need for prison reforms:
- Indian prisons face three long-standing structural constraints: overcrowding, understaffing and underfunding. The inevitable outcome is subhuman living conditions, poor hygiene, and violent clashes etc.
- Extradition of fugitive under UN Convention directly depends on prison reforms
- under trials lose four of their fundamental rights: the right to liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of occupation, and freedom of dignity. And the legal right to vote as well.
Challenges in prison reforms:
- Prison is a State subject.
- Prison Act 1894, which governs prisons with modifications is more than a century old and focus more on keeping them alive (headcount) not reform and rehabilitation.
- No separation between hard hand criminals and petty under trails.
Committees on Prison reforms:
Justice Mulla Committee 1983:
- All India cadre for prison staff and Bringing prison under the concurrent list
- Government should form a National Policy on Prisons
- Government to use alternatives to imprisonment such as community service, etc.
Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer committee on women prisoners 1987:
- Separate institutions with women employees alone for women offenders.
- Necessary provisions to restore the dignity of women even if convicted.
Justice Amaitava Roy panel on prison reforms:
In 2018, the Supreme Court appointed this panel. The committee submitted its report on February 2020 with major recommendations includes
- For overcrowding
- Special fast-track courts should be set up to deal with petty offences.
- Lawyers – prisoners ratio: there should be at least one lawyer for every 30 prisoners.
- For Understaffing
- The Supreme Court should pass directions to start the recruitment process against vacancies
- There should be use of video-conferencing for trial.
- For Prisoners
- Every new prisoner should be allowed a free phone call a day to his family members to see him through his first week in jail.
- Alternative punishments should be explored.
- Government should frame a National Policy on prison and form a National Commission on prisons to look into matters more seriously.
- Ensure the holistic development of prisoners like stress management, Yoga, etc.
- Ratifying the UN Convention against torture and sensitizing the staffs about the need to treat prisoners as humanely as possible.
- Changing the people’s attitude that “Everyone inside the jail is not a criminal, he is either an offender nor an under trail”.
- Increasing the budgetary allocation of the Criminal Justice System.
- Encourage Interactive and community policing in all possible ways.
- Open prison or semi open prison has to be encouraged like that in UP and Rajasthan.
Indian jails dubbed as a university for grooming criminals structural changes are needed to address the key issues. Else, prisons will continue to be heaven for politically connected criminals and hell for socio-economically disadvantaged undertrials.