‘Overcrowding, staff crunch hit country’s jails’: SC-appointed committee
Most prisons in the country are teeming with under trial prisoners and their numbers are highly disproportionate to the actual number of persons who end up getting convicted, a committee appointed by the Supreme Court has noted in its report.
Such a situation can be remedied only by ensuring speedy trial, the committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Amitava Roy said.
It recommended that special fast-track courts be set up to deal exclusively with petty offences which have been pending for more than five years. Further, it said that accused persons who are charged with petty offences and those granted bail, but who are unable to arrange surety should be released on a Personal Recognizance Bond.
It also suggested that an adjournment should not be granted in cases where witnesses are present and the concept of plea bargaining, in which accused admits guilt for a lesser sentence, should be promoted.
The committee also recommended that courts should exercise discretion to award alternative sentences to imprisonment , such as fines, admonitions, and community service. It also batted for the release of offenders/ prisoners on probation at pre-trial stage and after trial in deserving cases.
According to India Justice Report published in 2019 by Tata Trusts, 67.7% of India’s prison population was under trial prisoners in 2016. In 2016 almost 1.1 million prisoners went through the prison system and on any given day, there may be over 400,000 prisoners. The report stated that prison occupancy in Delhi was 180 percentage while the nationwide occupancy rate stood at 114 percentage.
The report was submitted in a case which was registered by the court suo motu based on a communication by one of its former chief justices, RC Lahoti who raised concerns regarding the overcrowding of prisons, unnatural deaths of prisoners, and gross inadequacy of staff.
The court in a judgment passed in the case on September 25, 2018 ordered the formation of a committee headed by justice Amitava Roy and comprising the Inspector General of Police, Bureau of Police Research and Development and Director General (Prisons) Tihar Jail as other members. The committee was entrusted with the task of examining various issues concerning prisons in the country and was directed to submit a report to the court.
Aside from overcrowding, another important issue raised by the committee in its report was the shortage of staff in prison departments. The shortage, to the extent of 30-40% has lingered for years for want of timely recruitment, the committee noted. This, it said, is a major hindrance for implementation of several mandatory measures prescribed by the law on prison reforms.
The committee asked the Supreme Court to direct states to hold special recruitment drives to fill up existing vacancies within the timeline prescribed by it.
When the case was heard on Wednesday, a bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde noted that overcrowding in prisons and shortage of staff are pertinent issues that need to be addressed.
“We know that overcrowding is connected with pendency and that is something we will need to tackle” said CJI Bobde.
He also said that the court will pass orders on the report after hearing the government.
Additional solicitor general Atmaram Nadkarni appearing for the central government sought time to obtain instructions on the report, which was allowed by the court.
Besides overcrowding and staff shortage, the report also made recommendations for providing effective legal aid to prisoners, ensuring video conferencing facilities between courts and prisons and taking steps to provide vocational skills and education to prisoners.
The report also noted that many prisons are continuing with primitive methods for food preparation with congested and unhygienic kitchens. It recommended steps to upgrade kitchens and to revise the diet of the inmates.
The case will be heard after two weeks.