Who cares about prisons? Do people languishing inside actually matter to us? Why are our prisons overcrowded? Is it because of the rise in crime, quicker ‘justice’ delivered in courts, or the lack of system both inside and outside prisons? Questions are enormous. Thus, it is pertinent to analyse the situation at hand.
There have been a series of attempts on prison reforms in the Indian context in varied forms. Many debates have followed with the basic understanding that prisons do not diminish crime rate, they may be seen as a solution to tackle with crime but that cannot be the ultimate solution. Also, prisons need constant improvement because they are undoubtedly a part of the society.
With the ongoing hearing in the Supreme Court of India pertaining to inhuman conditions in 1382 prisons in India, debates related to prison reforms have started emerging. According to figures provided by the government in Rajya Sabha in 2018, India’s 1,412 jails are crowded to 114% of their capacity, with a count of 4.33 lakh prisoners against a capacity of less than 3.81 lakh until December 31, 2016. The 1,401 jails of 2015 have a break-up of 741 sub-jails, 379 district jails and 134 central jails, the rest being open jails, women’s jails, special jails and other jails. There are only 18 women jails in India comprising just over 1% of the total. Statistics clearly suggest that the ratio of men entering the prisons is much higher as compared to women. In 2016, 18,498 women were lodged in prisons against a capacity of 26,068, or 71%, while the 4,14,505 men overshot the capacity of 3,54,808 by 17%. There are also examples of states where women have outnumbered men. Chhattisgarh had a female occupancy of 186%, followed by Uttarakhand (141%), Delhi (138%), Goa (120%) and Uttar Pradesh (117%). Goa showed a striking contrast: while its women prisoners were 20% over capacity, men prisoners were less than 36% of capacity. Overall, the state had among the lowest occupancies at 38%.
In 2017, Supreme Court of India had directed Chief Secretaries of 18 States/UTs to review the progress of the various constructions of jails/ barracks and take decisions on all proposals for construction of additional jails/barracks and evaluate those prisons where over-crowding is more than 150%. These included Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The affidavits received by the amicus curiae, Gaurav Aggarwal, throw light on where we stand.
It is shocking to note that prisons, both in UP and Bihar display an image of complete neglect. There are eight central, 32 district and 18 sub-jails in Bihar. According to a report published in the Business Line in 2017, all the 58 jails in Bihar are overflowing with inmates. The situation worsened when 35,000 people were arrested and sent to jail under the liquor law in the state since April 2016.
14 jails in Bihar are overcrowded beyond 150%. The chart submitted to the Hon’ble Supreme Court in May, 2018 is self-explanatory:
The information given by Bihar to address the above problem is as follows:
1) 3 District jails at Aurangabad, Bhabhua and Jamui with capacity of 2718 prisoners are near completion.
2) Construction of prisoner ward at Gaya, Purnea, Sitamarhi, Bettiah, Arrah, Gopalganj, Chhapra, Bhagalpur [for women prisoners] and Jhanjharpur with capacity of 3076 are under process.
3) Construction of new district jails at Madhepura, Arwal and Sub-Jails at Kahalgaon and Paliganj are also under process for the project estimate and acquisition of land.
But the main question still remains unanswered. Do we have our systems in place to deal with overcrowding? Also, do we have timelines for completing the projects and also can prisons get some attention please?
Like many other states, Bihar has also not provided any specified time line for completing these projects. Also, the issue of filling up the vacant posts remains unanswered.
(Vartika Nanda is a prison reformer and a media educator. She is the founder of the Tinka Tinka Project, which aims at bringing change in the lives of jail inmates. She received the Stree Shakti Puraskar for 2013 from the President of India for her contribution in creating awareness on women’s issues.)