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India Needs Prison Reforms to Decongest its Jails

There are 149 jails in India that are overcrowded by more than 100 per cent and that eight are overcrowded by margins of a staggering 500 per cent. Among them the Satyamangalam sub-jail in Erode district of Tamil Nadu has 200 prisoners "stuffed" in a space meant for 16 people. These alarming statistics were revealed in the Centre's reply in response to a question in the Lok Sabha on August 8, 2017.

There are 1,387 functioning jails in India having a total capacity to house 3, 56,561 prisoners and there are 4, 18,536 inmates in these jails. While prisons have been recognized as a correctional facility worldwide, Indian prisons are a perfect picture of rusty, outdated and neglected place for housing human beings and such conditions have a direct impact on the mental and physical health of its occupants. The main culprit is Indian prisons are still governed by a 123-year-old law -- The Prisons Act 1894.

The Supreme Court of India, in its judgments on various aspects of prison administration, has laid down three broad principles regarding imprisonment and custody. First, a person in prison does not become a non-person. Second, a person in prison is entitled to all human rights within the limitations of imprisonment. Third, there is no justification for aggravating the suffering already inherent in the process of incarceration.

The Bureau for Police Research and Development's report on the implementation of the Mulla Committee recommendations revealed that 60 per cent of the jails in the country were unable to assign new prisoners to a particular barrack or ward due to overcrowding. However, due to the increasing number of criminals there is no escape from it. Prisoners are 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 to stretch legs, where the entry of "more guests" implies the quality and quantity of food and sanitation would further suffer.

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."

The reason is most Indian prisons were built in the colonial era and are in constant need of repair and many of them are un-habitable. While the prison capacity gets reduced on the ground, the number of prisoners is ever increasing. The resultant overcrowding takes a toll on already constrained prison resources. Additionally it makes separation between different classes of prisoners extremely difficult.

With 33 prisoners per 100,000 populations, India has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world. If the government is unable to adequately house these prisoners, it is a reflection of the priority it accords to prison and broadly criminal justice. So there is urgent need for prison reforms to decongest jails in India.

While government data reveals the alarming levels of overcrowding, it is still understated and needs for urgent attention. Among the inmates lodged in jails, there is large number of under-trials and detenues then the actual convicts. The overcrowding of the jails is more due to non-convicts because there is no separate place to house the under-trials and the detenue.

A convict is "a person found guilty of a crime and sentenced by a court,” “an under-trial is a person who is currently on trial in a court of law”, “a detenue is any person held in custody."

Under trial and convicted prisoners have to be housed separately and so does the inmates with mental disabilities and those with communicable diseases. These segregations further impact the occupancy levels for inmates but there is total lack of apathy by the government for such considerations.

The government needs to build more prisons and remodel the 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.

The problem gets compounded due the understaffing of the prison. As a result of lack of supervision, inmates are confined in their cells for longer hours. This makes the situation worse and increases the possibility of tensions and violence within the jail premises.

There is limited attention on correctional facilities, reform and need for privacy and with limited resources to manage and contain these incidents, the functioning of prisons becomes difficult.

There are several kinds of jails in India; i) Central jail- Here prisoners are sentenced to imprisonment for more than 2 years and such jails have larger capacity in comparison to other jails. ii) District jail- These jails serve as the main prisons in States/UTs where there are no Central Jails. iii) Women's Jail- It exclusively house women prisoners. iv) Borstal School- It is youth detention center for the imprisonment of minors or juveniles. v) Open jail- Here prisoners with good behavior are housed satisfying certain norms prescribed in the prison rules. vi) Special Jails- It keeps offenders and prisoners who are convicted of terrorism, insurgency and violent crimes.

Prisons in India, and their administration, are a state subject covered by item 4 under the State List in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India. The management and administration of prisons falls exclusively in the domain of the State governments, and is governed by the Prisons Act, 1894 and the Prison manuals of the respective state governments.

Thus, the states have the primary role, responsibility and authority to change the current prison laws, rules and regulations. The Central Government provides assistance to the states to improve security in prisons, for the repair and renovation of old prisons, medical facilities, development of borstal schools, facilities to women offenders, vocational training, modernization of prison industries, training to prison personnel, and for the creation of high security enclosures.

To address these issues the state government needs to build separate prisons for the convicts and the under trial and detenue. The construction of more prisons definitely has to be considered as per population growth and the increase in the crime statistics. The government also has to employ more staff to make the functioning of these places more transparent and humane.