Decongesting jails: Data reveals a grim picture
While budgets remain low, workloads high, and the police remain unmindful of procedural safeguards, prisons will remain medieval dumping grounds for the poor and inconvenient
The clamour for decongesting prisons has been raging for a while now. The need became even more acute with the coronavirus pandemic. As we stare at potential waves of Covid-19, there is a crying need for the justice system to look into the risks it is subjecting prison populations to, and urgently formulate remedies.
Even though the pandemic caught everyone off-guard, the Supreme Court (SC) and several other institutions quickly took steps to tackle the situation.
In March 2020, just as Covid-19 was taking hold, the SC took suo motu (on its own) cognisance of the threat of contagion in India’s overcrowded prisons, directing measures to deal with the health crisis. It formed committees to determine the category of prisoners to be released on parole or interim bail, ensured availability of medical assistance, and started court hearings through video conferencing (VC). Several high courts, including Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh, reinforced the SC’s intention with their strict guidelines. The 2014 directions in Arnesh Kumar vs the State of Bihar, which states that arrests should be an exception in cases where the punishment is less than seven years of imprisonment, were also oft-repeated.
The recently released Prisons Statistics of India (PSI) 2020 gives us a glimpse into how successful prison decongestion and medical safeguards have been. The report, however, does not contain any Covid-19 specific data.
Between December 2019 and December 2020, prison occupancy reduced marginally from 120% to 118%. The pandemic year (2020) witnessed nearly 900,000 more arrests than in 2019. In absolute numbers, in December 2020, there were 7,124 more people in jail than in December 2019.
In 17 states, on an average, prison populations rose by 23% from 2019 to 2021, as opposed to 2-4% in previous years. The appalling figures come from states such as Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, and Uttarakhand, which had tragic occupancy rates of 177%, 174%, and 169%, respectively (December 2020).
The increase in the share of under-trials in prisons was at an all-time high. PSI 2020 puts the percentage at 76% in December 2020: An increase from the earlier 69% in December 2019. Only Kerala (110% to 83%), Punjab (103% to 78%), Haryana (106% to 95%) Karnataka (101% to 98%), Arunachal Pradesh (106% to 76%) and Mizoram (106% to 65%) could reduce their occupancy below 100%.
Video-conferencing promised some relief from court closures. 69% of prisons now have VC facilities, as opposed to 60% in 2019. But the facility is not evenly distributed across the country. Tamil Nadu, Manipur, West Bengal, Nagaland, A&N Islands, Rajasthan and Lakshadweep still have VC facilities in less than 50% of their jails.
Tamil Nadu, which has more than 14,000 prisoners, has VC facilities in only 14 of its 142 jails. Uttarakhand, which has VC facilities in all its jails, continues to increase under-trial numbers and has an occupancy rate of 169%.
What VC facilities seem to accomplish is the necessity of law that a prisoner must be produced before a magistrate every two weeks. Fulfilling this technicality does nothing for decongestion or effectuating speedy justice.
The prompt availability of medical staff was another important direction by the SC. Yet, in this time of enhanced health risks for already vulnerable populations, there remains a is a huge shortage of medical staff (resident medical officers/medical officers, pharmacists, and lab technicians/attendants), leading to delays in attending to the needs of inmates.
Goa has the highest vacancy (84.6%) of medical staff, followed by Karnataka (67.1%), Ladakh (66.7%), Jharkhand (59.2%), Uttarakhand (57.6%) and Haryana (50.5%). While Goa has only two medical staff for over 500 inmates, Karnataka has 26 for 14,308 prisoners. Frighteningly, in 15 states, the number of available medical staff was reduced in this period; whereas the inmate population increased by nearly 10,000.
The shortage of medical officers is a constant. More often than not, sanctioned posts remain unfilled and are nowhere near the ideal of one medical officer for 300 prisoners laid down in the Model Prison Rules.
Shortages in medical officer vacancies average around 34% nationally. Mizoram is reported to have no medical officer. With a vacancy of 90%, Uttarakhand has only one medical officer for 5,969 inmates. Jharkhand’s vacancy levels are at 77.1%. Only Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya meet the benchmark of at least one medical officer for every 300 prisoners.
The dry figures of PSI 2020 make for a sad stock taking. But, much as the courts may direct and the prison administration strive for it, the structural deficiencies in prison will continue to make them places where the innocent must spend an unwarranted amount of time and face unfair and unacceptable health and safety risks.
While budgets remain unrealistically low, workloads high, and the police remain unmindful of procedural safeguards, prisons will remain medieval dumping grounds for the poor and inconvenient, a far cry from the ideal policy prescription of making prisons into places of rehabilitation and “correctional institutions”.
Maja Daruwala is chief editor, India Justice Report, and Rehana Manzoor is lead researcher, India Justice Report The views expressed are personal