Prison reforms crucial to refining the justice system
Some of the findings are stark: the average prison occupancy is 114%; 19 out of 36 states and UTs (where data was available; J&K, which was recently bifurcated, has been included as a state) have more than 100% occupancy; Delhi has 180% occupancy.Updated: Nov 12, 2019 04:23 IST
Prison populations are at the margins of welfare, rights, and basic entitlements. Various landmark judgments by the Supreme Court and high courts have repeatedly highlighted the need for prison reforms, particularly with respect to custodial conditions, lack of health care, effective legal aid, non-production of undertrials on their court dates (due to a lack of police escort), inadequate trained staff, and the near absence of aftercare services for released prisoners.
It is in this context that the India Justice Report 2019 assumes significance. It looks at the human resources and infrastructure available across four pillars of the justice system — police, prisons, legal aid and the judiciary. With respect to prisons, the report tries to throw light on several indicators, using data from the Prison Statistics India (PSI) Report 2016, published every year by the National Crime Records Bureau. The PSI 2017 report released recently wasn’t included.
Some of the findings are stark: the average prison occupancy is 114%; 19 out of 36 states and UTs (where data was available; J&K, which was recently bifurcated, has been included as a state) have more than 100% occupancy; Delhi has 180% occupancy. It is worrying that in 10 states, prison occupancy and share of undertrials has increased over the last five years. The year-on-year trend over five years [2012-2016] shows between 0.5 to 1.5% increase in the share of undertrials per year.
One of the major reasons for the large number of undertrial prisoners is pendency of cases in courts. The Case Clearance Rate — number of cases cleared in a year measured against the cases filed that year — is more than 100% in only a handful of states. More than 20% of ongoing court cases have been pending for over five years in eight of the 18 large and mid-sized states, and two of the six small states for which data was available. Another reason for undertrials languishing in prisons is the poor state of legal aid.
The data showed that no state had used up their entire budget granted by the National Legal Services Authority. The District Legal Services Authority bodies (DLSAs) are mandated to appoint legal aid lawyers and pay them an honorarium for their services. To do so, full-time DLSA secretaries should be posted.
However, the report revealed vacancies in these posts in many states: it is as high as 34.8% in Chhattisgarh and 28.2% in Uttar Pradesh.
Vacancies are a problem across board. In prison departments, vacancies are greater than 20% for most prison staff positions. In the officer cadre, highest percentage of vacancies are in Bihar (52%) and Uttarakhand (68%), while in the constable cadre, Bihar (65.9%) and Jharkhand (69%) have the highest percentage of vacancies. As far as correctional staff — counsellors, psychologists, social workers and welfare officers — is concerned, the situation is grim: 18 out of 23 states have correctional staff vacancies above 80%. For example, UP had 95,366 inmates per correctional staff. A similar picture emerges when it comes to filling up posts of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates. The number of inmates per prison cadre staff —constables and warders — is highest in Jharkhand at 25.52 inmates per prison cadre staff and lowest in Arunachal Pradesh at 1.61 inmates per prison cadre staff. Most states have a range of 5 to 15 inmates per prison cadre staff.
One of the reasons for poor prison conditions is inadequate expenditure. The report reveals that 16 out of 35 states and UTs spent less than ~30,000 per inmate per year or ~2,500 per inmate per month on food, clothing, medical, vocational and welfare activities. This is not due to budgetary constraints: 15 out 35 states and UTs spent less than 90% of their annual budget. In fact, on an average, prisons take up less than 0.5% of the annual budget in all states, with the lowest being 0.06% in Gujarat. This is probably because prisoners don’t constitute a vote bank or garner much sympathy.
In terms of trends across last five years, only four of the 25 ranked states were able to significantly improve across key indicators like staff vacancies, share of women staff, inmates per staff, spend per inmate, and spend of annual budget. Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Kerala and Maharashtra had improved their performance in seven out of the nine indicators.
The purpose of the report is to engender public debate and foster healthy competition among states to improve their ranking. One hopes this exercise would lead to a more robust data collection process by state agencies so that they are able to present a more accurate picture about the justice delivery system in future.
Vijay Raghavan is a professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and one of the authors of the report.