The escape of eight undertrials belonging to SIMI and their subsequent deaths in a police encounter have been in the headlines. Before they become forgotten statistics, it would be worthwhile examining how it was so easy for them to break out of a high-security prison with seeming ease — at least this is what prima facie evidence suggests. One clear reason for the escape is that there was a lack of staff to monitor the inmates of the prison. It would appear that a solitary guard who was murdered was in charge of several prisons considered to be high risk.
This should prompt a review of the state of security in prisons in India. The Bhopal-type of incident is not an isolated one. There have been several jailbreaks in the past, thanks to lax security as a result of understaffing.
According to the latest data on prisons, published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2015, 33% of prison guards’ posts are vacant and among officers the figure is 36%. Prisons across the country are facing a severe staff crunch — there are over 27,000 vacancies against the sanctioned strength of just 80,000. It was in Madhya Pradesh that three alleged SIMI activists escaped in 2013. The state has a prison guard vacancy figure of 28%. Among officers, the vacancy is 35%. The sanctioned strength is that of 370 officers of which 128 posts are vacant. These include officers from the rank of jailor to DG.
In Delhi, which has what is considered the safest prison in the India, Tihar, the vacancy among staff is 47%, making it third from the bottom of the list in the country. When it comes to jail cadre staff, the vacancy figure is an astounding 51%.
This has created a huge problem vis-à-vis security and the fact that prisoners far outnumber the prison staff poses a threat both of jail breaks and to the safety of the latter. Vulnerable inmates too suffer as there are not enough guards to protect them. Criminality within jails has also become a serious problem. In fact, dreaded gangsters have been known to run their illegal empires from within the jail premises and create a reign of terror in the prisons where they are lodged.
The first step in reforming the criminal justice system has to begin with ensuring that undertrials are not held for inordinate periods of time in jails. The prisoner to staff ratio must be rationalised and vacancies filled as soon as they arise. One problem is that there are not enough takers for jobs in prisons due to the dangers of the job and the unsanitary conditions within.