Maharashtra’s prisons overcrowded, time to increase their capacity: OfficersUpdated: Oct 14, 2019, 00:07 IST
Top officers of five major jails in Maharashtra have written to the state’s director general of prisons and to various courts to urgently tackle overcrowding of under-trials and convicts. The letter, which HT has seen, was written by authorities at Arthur Road jail, Byculla jail (both in Mumbai), Thane Central Jail, Yerawada Central Jail (Pune), and Aadharwadi Jail in Kalyan. It states that though the 60 prisons across the state have a capacity of 24,032 inmates, the current population is more than 50% higher at 36,195.
Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail was built to hold 804 prisoners, but it accommodates 3,650 at present, says state government data. Thane’s central prison officially can house 1,105 prisoners, but its current strength is 3,850. In Aurangabad – 370 km north-east of Mumbai – the jail capacity is 579, but accommodates 1,743 prisoners. Pune’s Yerawada jail – one of India’s largest – officially houses 2,449, but has 6,000 prisoners. The story is the same for Nagpur, Kolhapur, Taloja and Amravati prisons as well.
The letter asks the state government to either build prison capacity or to shift prisoners to smaller jails across the state.
Deepak Pandey, inspector general of police (prisons), admitted that Maharashtra’s jails are overcrowded. He told HT on Sunday that, “The matter is sub-judice, and the Chief Justice of the Bombay high court has admitted a suo motu public interest litigation (PIL) in the matter.” There are three primary issues with jails in Maharashtra, Pandey said. “The first is overcrowding, the second is unnatural deaths, and the third is sanctioned posts in the jails.”
An officer from a Maharashtra jail said, “According to the rule, a constable should look after six prisoners. Presently, a constable overlooks over 200 prisoners.”
According to Pandey, jail authorities who studied the issue in order to respond to the PIL will hand over the report to the HC soon. “The court will decide and order the state to take appropriate action,” added Pandey.
Meeran Borwankar, Maharashtra’s former additional director general of prisons, weighed in, saying almost all jails in the state are overcrowded. She pointed out that Arthur Road jail, Thane Central jail, Yerawada Central jail and few district jails, face severe overcrowding. “The government should build jails near courts or police headquarters,” she told HT. “This helps inmates to reach the court quickly and reduces the burden on escort teams.”
Apart from the safety and security of prisoners, overcrowding has led to several health hazards. Pandey told HT that skin and respiratory infections are common among prison inmates. “It is not Maharashtra alone that has an overcrowding problem,” he said. “Tamil Nadu had a similar issue, but it built several new jails with a capacity of 200 each to overcome the problem.” Smaller jails, though, will not help Mumbai, he added. “We built Taloja Central jail in Navi Mumbai, and that has helped us a bit, but we need a jail in Mumbai with a capacity of at least 5,000 inmates.”
Jail authorities in Mumbai said overcrowding often leads to physical fights over space and belongings, notwithstanding the sanitation and health problems that the inmates go through.
A 25-year-old former under-trial at Arthur Road jail told HT, “Barracks 7, 7(1), 7(2) and 7(3) can hold 30 prisoners each, but each of them have around 240 inmates at any point.”
Internationally, on average, each prisoner is provided 6sq m of space, a senior prison officer said. “In Maharashtra, we follow the international rule, but with over-crowding, five to six prisoner adjust in an area of 6x4 sq m .”
Another jail officer added, “Elections have added to the problem, with the state rounding up both wanted accused and history-sheeters.”
Suresh Chavan, a retired deputy inspector general of prisons and a member of the Justice KS Radhakrishnan Committee on prison reforms, said, “We had recommended that inmates with bailable offences or small cases should not be kept in prison for a long time. The jail superintendent should get bail early to reduce overcrowding.”
He added that the committee’s second recommendation was to build new barracks in jails that had space. “It was done at Arthur Road and Thane jails a few years back, but the situation is back to square one.”
A third recommendation of the committee – to build a new jail in Mumbai – is under consideration by the state government, which has shortlisted Mankhurd and Chembur for the new facility. Shrikant Singh, additional chief secretary (appeals & security), home department, said, “We are aware of the issue. We are in the process of addressing the issue of lack of space in jails.”
Professor Vijay Raghavan of the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and a member of the Radhakrishnan Committee, said, “Between 65-70% of under-trials are in jail for less serious offences and can’t afford lawyers. The government is not able to provide them proper legal aid.” Raghavan said that owing to low judge population, trials take long to complete and because many prisoners cannot provide surety, they remain in jail. “Prisoners are also not taken to court as the escort team is busy maintaining law and order in the city,” he added. Talking about the issue of health, Raghavan said, “We don’t have enough doctors to treat prisoners. The health department is responsible, as they can’t fill up vacancies. Secondly, due to delay in trials and court hearings, prisoners often become clinically depressed.”