Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court pulled up state governments and Union territories over the condition of jails, saying prisoners “cannot be kept in jail like animals.” It warned directors general of police of all states and UTs of contempt notices for non-compliance of its earlier orders that had sought a plan of action for dealing with the overcrowding of prisons.
The country’s 1,412 jails are crowded to 114% of their capacity, with a count of 4.33 lakh prisoners against a capacity of less than 3.81 lakh until December 31, 2016, according to provisional figures cited by the government in Rajya Sabha earlier this month. In 2015, when there were 1,401 jails, these had 4,19,623 prisoners, again 114% of the total capacity of 3,66,781, according to figures compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau.
Cause & remedy
One of the primary reasons for overcrowding of prisons is pendency of court cases. As on March 31, 2016, more than three crore cases are pending in various courts, and two of every three prison inmates in the country are undertrials. The 4,19,623 prisoners of 2015, for example, included 2,82,076 undertrials, or 67%, according to the NCRB data.
Undertrials were a key feature among the eight-point guidelines that the Supreme Court issued in a landmark judgment on the inhuman conditions in prisons. Among these were:
* The Undertrial Review Committee in every district should meet every quarter
* The committee should look into
aspects pertaining to effective implementation of Sections 436 and 436A of the CrPC so that undertrial prisoners are released at the earliest and those who cannot furnish bail bonds due to poverty are not subjected to
incarceration only for that reason.
* The secretary of the District Legal Services Committee will look into the issue of the release of undertrial prisoners in compoundable offences, the effort being to explore the possibility of compounding offences rather than requiring a trial to take place.
Overcrowding continues in spite of moves undertaken to accommodate more prisoners and fast-track cases. A non-plan scheme for modernisation of prisons, floated by the home ministry in 2002-03, envisaged among various initiatives the construction of more prisons and construction of additional barracks. The initial five-year outlay was Rs 1,800 crore for 27 states. By September 2011,
according to a ministry report, 119 new jails and 1,572 barracks had been built, with the states having utilised over 98% of the funds. In a reply in Lok Sabha on March 13, the government acknowledged the large number of undertrials as a major reason for overcrowding, and listed various measures taken to address the problem:
* Establishing fast-track courts
* Establishing open prisons in states and UTs
* Launching a National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms
* Introducing the concept of plea bargaining through Section 265 of CrPC
* Insertion of Section 436A that sets a limit for the maximum period for which an undertrial prisoner can be detained
* Promotion of plea bargaining by National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) within CrPC parameters
* Free legal services being provided to all undertrial prisoners by NALSA’s legal service clinics.
Under entry 4 of List II of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution, prisons are governed by the Prisons Act, 1894, and the Prison Manuals of respective state governments. Thus, states have the primary role, responsibility and authority to change the current prison laws, rules and regulations. However, the Centre has set up various committees from time to time to recommend modernisation of prisons. In 2016, a model prison manual was drafted by the Ministry of Home Affairs and was sent to all States and Union territories for implementation.
Over half the jails in the country are sub-jails, over a quarter district jails and a tenth central jails. The 1,401 jails of 2015 broke up into 741 sub-jails, 379 district jails and 134 central jails, the rest being open jails, borstals, women’s jails, special jails and other jails. At 18, women’s jails comprised just over 1% of the total.
It is the men prisoners who are overcrowding the jails, data show. In 2016, jails of the country had 18,498 women against a capacity of 26,068, or 71%, while the 4,14,505 men overshot the capacity of 3,54,808 by 17%. In many states, however, the number of women prisoners was well over capacity. Chhattisgarh led this count with a female occupancy of 186%, followed by Uttarakhand (141%), Delhi (138%), Goa (120%) and Uttar Pradesh (117%). Goa showed a striking contrast: while its women prisoners were 20% over capacity, men prisoners were less than 36% of capacity. Overall, the state had among the lowest occupancies at 38%.