The Condemned

India's overcrowded prisons desperately need reform

Illustrations by Mohit Suneja
Reporting by Aparna Alluri

13th November, 2016


That’s about 70 per cent of India’s prisoners. They are all undertrials. They are waiting for their trial to either begin or end.

Undertrials by period of detention at the end of 2015

This is a major reason why India’s prisons are overcrowded.

Lawyers say a lot of people get arrested in India but very few get bail. While the trial drags on, all these accused are stuck in prison. Especially the poor who can’t afford bail.


Because nearly half of these undertrials didn't finish school. More than a quarter of them never enrolled.

So they can’t afford bail or decent lawyers to get them out.

Overcrowded prisons aren’t just short of space. They are also short of staff.

Indian prisons have over

27,000 vacancies

- including those for guards, wardens and doctors.

Without enough guards and wardens, prisons are less safe.

In 2015 - clashes and firing hurt 11 staff and over 200 prisoners. Nine prisoners were killed.

Without enough guards and wardens, prisons are less safe.

Overcrowding also makes living conditions worse - flush-based toilets are rare and daily showers unusual.

We don’t know how much space each prisoner gets, how many use a single toilet or shower, and what they eat because prisons don’t report any of this regularly.

Worse, there is just one doctor

for every 638 prisoners.

Communicable diseases are rampant.
Unprotected sex and substance abuse is high.

A prisoner dies every five-and-half hours.

Most of them die because of old age or illness - prisons call these "natural deaths". Suicide is the most common cause of "unnatural death".

But there is only one psychologist or psychiatrist for more than 23,000 prisoners.

Only six states have either on staff, leaving

more than 3,00,000 prisoners, including the mentally ill and those on death row, with no access to a mental health professional.

The problem is nobody is looking inside these jails.

Most states don’t have a “board of visitors” who review jails. The boards that do exist rarely meet.

In 2015, only two states had boards fully compliant with the law.

Data source: Prison Statistics India 2015 and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

Design and Development: Gurman Bhatia