The unprecedented audacious act at the high-security Nabha jail on Sunday has once again brought under glare the chaos and corruption ruling Punjab prisons.
Jails have virtually lost their meaning and instead of serving as “reform centres” they are being used by gangsters to regroup and realign, recruit new members and plan crimes together. With easy access to mobile phones, they also execute crimes, run extortion rackets and plan their own escapes.
The police investigating the Nabha jailbreak incident is of the view that the six inmates who dashed to freedom this morning were in constant touch with those who had come to facilitate their escape. Since January 2015, 37 gangsters have escaped from custody while being brought for hearing and another eight have absconded while out on bail, in most cases with the active help of fellow gangsters.
Corruption nub of the problem
The nub of the problem is rampant corruption with jail staff allowing almost every comfort possible to the inmates for a price. Inmates, have access to mobile phones, sim cards, cash and drugs. In May, police conducted surprise checks of various jails in Punjab and recovered 65 mobile phones, a dozen sim cards, opium and other drugs besides cash. As many as 15 phones were seized from Nabha jail.
Inmates manage to smuggle these things either through the help of relatives who come to meet them in jail or during their visit to the court for hearings. Inmates also “use” mobile phones of the jail staff for a price. Similarly drugs, syringes to inject drugs, cigarettes, bidis etc are also supplied through the jail staff.
Shortage of staff and infrastructure
The jail department suffers from a perpetual shortage of staff to control the overburdened jails. In Punjab there are 26 jails which house over 23,000 inmates. The sanctioned strength of staff is around 2,000 but runs short of 300 to 400 persons. The department had only recently started hiring almost 560 jail wardens after the cabinet cleared additional posts for the department.
In order to enhance security inside and outside the jails, the department has been demanding a battalion of the Punjab Armed Police (PAP) for every jail but the police have not been able to spare its employees for duty in jails. Most of the jails in the state also lack basic surveillance and monitoring infrastructure and it was only recently that the police started installing jammers and CCTV cameras in jails.
The missed opportunity
Today’s incident also comes in wake of the state government having shot down a move to bring in the Punjab Control of Organised Crime Act (PCOCA), 2016, to empower the police and courts to effectively counter gangsters. The draft act was proposed by the police but was put off by the cabinet on the grounds that some of its provisions could be misused by the police.
In the past five years, not a single gangster in the state has been convicted with 55 cases ending in acquittals. Of the 105 gangsters arrested between 1996 and 2016, only 10 were convicted. In most cases, witnesses turned hostile for fear of the gangster or a compromise was struck. But under the PCOCA, confessions made before a superintendent of police would be admissible as evidence.