Last week, two stories on prisons were published. In the United States, convicts of the Eastern correctional facility in New York defeated a highly acclaimed debate team from Harvard University.
If this story retains our faith in such facilities, the second story from the other side of the world leaves us in despair. It was mayhem last week in Delhi’s high-security Tihar Jail, where two prisoners died after a clash between two groups in jail number 1. While it is inappropriate to compare the two incidents, the contrast between the two only shows how well-run facilities can indeed transform lives.
Last week’s fracas in Tihar was the latest in a string of violent incidents reported from one of Asia’s largest prison complexes. There have already been 32 deaths, excluding last week’s two. Tihar Jail’s challenges are well known: The sanctioned number of prisoners is 6,250, whereas the actual number is 14,800. The prisoner to guard ratio is one guard for 15 prisoners whereas the standard is usually 1:3.
Thanks to the overcrowding in jails and the serious human resource crunch, administrations can do very little to stop gangsters from running extortion rackets, planning murders of rivals and hatching escape plans — all sitting inside the prison. In the absence of proper legal aid, the poor and the vulnerable are forced to become part of this sordid system.
A Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative report says that over 67% of the prisoners are under-trials and they may continue to be held in overcrowded prisons for years.
“Lack of inspections and sketchy implementation of oversight mechanisms turn prisons into frightening wrecks with shoddy living conditions. This rot in the criminal justice system impacts the psychological condition of a prisoner making him more vulnerable than before to criminal propensities. He gets out of prison ruined and not reformed,” the report added.
Prison statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau showed that nothing much has changed in jails over the years. At the end of 2014, 418,000 prisoners were in Indian jails that can accommodate 356,000 people.
Jails are seen as wasteland in India. They need not be so. But to change prisons, we need to reform the criminal justice system first. And that’s an issue over which the government cannot afford to drag its feet anymore.