It was roughly six months into his eight-year incarceration that Raees Ahmed discovered that the Maharashtra Prison Manual 1979 guaranteed him a sleeping space of 40 square feet. “While the rules said each prisoner should have at least 3.71 sq m of sleeping space, we used to have three men huddling together in that space. I have heard that things have improved recently, but it would still take a lot of time for our prisons to become a bit more humane,” says Ahmed, who spent a substantial portion of his eight-year stint in Arthur Road jail as an undertrial.
One of the main reasons for such conditions is the severe overcrowding across jails in the country, a reality that is ,not surprisingly, more acute in jails in Mumbai and adjoining areas. Overcrowding rates here are far higher than the state average.
Maharashtra, till the end of June 2017, had the capacity to hold 23,942 prisoners as against the actual prison population of 31,417, which suggests jails are 31.22 per cent above capacity.
In the prisons of Mumbai and adjoining areas, the inmate population is 102 per cent over capacity.
Five major prisons serve Mumbai, including Arthur Road, Byculla, Thane, Taloja and Kalyan. There is also a women’s prison in Byculla. All these have a combined capacity of 5,035 prisoners as against the total prisoner population of 10,196.
This huge overcrowding means none of the rules laid down under the Modern Prisons Manual regarding how prisoners should be kept is met. The rules speak about 3.71 sq m of sleeping space per prisoner, 15.83 cubic metre of air space, one western closet for every six prisoners in the day and one for 10 in the night. It mandates nearly 135 litres of water for every prisoner, every day.
The reality, say prisoners, is that over 50 inmates line up in front of a single toilet and many can barely access any water at all. “These rules are so far away from ground realities of prison life. The hunt for your own individual space is one of the major causes of prison fights,” says Ahmed.
At Arthur Road jail, one of India’s most crowded prisons, former inmates remember being in a cell that was barely 3 feet x 7 feet and had five persons inside.
“When sleeping, if you stretched your legs, they would reach the bathroom floor. There were 3,000 people in a space fit only for 800, and this only worsened the already bad conditions,” says Abdul Wahid Shaikh, who spent nine years in the prison’s anda cell. The overcrowding brought with it issues of fights over space, food and water, he confirms.
Another inmate who spent five months in the prison says he was in a general barrack with 250 other people.
“There were only four bathrooms inside the barrack. The toilets would clog and the inmates were expected to clean them. There would always be people in need of money or basic necessities who would volunteer to clean the toilet in exchange for canteen supplies. It would stink nonetheless due to so many people using it,” he says, not wishing to be named.
Among the more recent reports on the issue of undertrials is the 268th report of the Law Commission of India released in May 2017.
Though its ambit was to look at amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, on provisions relating to bail, it says, “The rising crime rates and the overcrowding of prisons mark the need to overhaul the crumbling prison infrastructure and system. Reducing the sheer number of undertrials by releasing them on bail may serve the useful purpose.”
The report refers to statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau, 2015 and the Prison Statistics of India, 2015, stating that 67 per cent of the prison population is awaiting trial. It says that while India has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world compared to its population (33 per 1 lakh of the national population), the percentage of bails being granted is far lower than ideal, at a mere 28 per cent of offenders.
Wahid Shaikh also recalls how they would always complain about the food quality, but would be served palatable food during visits by judges or members of human rights commissions.
“Before a visit, we would be told that there should be no complaints. They would assure us that the food quality would improve. But it would only improve in the meal served on the day of the visit. Visiting authorities would find it difficult to believe that the food quality is bad even if one told them,” he recalls.
Another inmate says the overcrowding also led to health issues. “There was only one doctor for the entire prison. All diagnosis in the prison would lead to a pain-killer being given to the inmate. Unless you had money, the prison authorities never gave immediate medical aid,” says the inmate.
The story is not very different in the women’s prison. An inmate says due to overcrowding, each woman would be given one vertical tile of space inside a barrack. “It would increase to one and a half if you had a child with you. There would be fights over this space with women with children expected to sleep in a cramped space,” says a former inmate.