World over, prisons have turned out to be hotspots of COVID infection & spread because of overcrowding & high occupancy ratio. India is no exception to this trend. The latest PSI report of the NCRB indicates that the prison occupancy ratio in India was at a 10-year high by the end of 2019.
Prison overcrowding is a common problem that many countries across the globe, including the developed ones like the US and European countries. There are many causes behind the overcrowding such as overreliance on imprisonment as a means of punishment, imprisonment of offenders who cannot pay their fines, recidivism, long duration of the trials and inadequate prison facilities. The increasing size of prison population places an enormous financial burden on governments. Besides, overcrowding challenges the ability of prison administration to provide the basic human needs like food, accommodation, and healthcare. The effectiveness of rehabilitation programs, educational programs, and vocational trainings will also be challenged. Overcrowding can also have repercussions on the mental and physical health of prisoners and the support staff manning these prisons.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of prison overcrowding was under limelight as prisons emerged as hotspots of the pandemic. The risk of infection of the coronavirus is high in overcrowded prisons, and hence governments even resorted to releasing prison inmates based on certain criteria. Indian prisons are no exception. Indian prisons also continue to be overcrowded.
Indian prisons continue to be overcrowded
Recently, the National Crime Records Bureau released the 25th edition of the annual Prisons Statistics India (PSI) for 2019 which provides comprehensive statistical information on various aspects of prison administration in India. As per this report, as on 31 December 2019, 4.78 Lakh inmates were lodged in prisons across the country while the actual capacity of the prisons was only 4.03 Lakh persons. The occupancy rate of prisons in India is calculated as the percentage of the ratio of inmate population to total capacity in prisons. An occupancy ratio of more than 100% implies that the prisons are overcrowded and if it is below 100%, it means that the prisons are not yet filled to their capacity. The occupancy ratio of prisons in India was 118.5% in the end of 2019. In simpler terms, what it means is, in a space where 100 persons could be accommodated, close to 119 persons were accommodated on average. The occupancy ratio of males in prisons was 122% while that of women was only 71.9%, clearly indicating that overcrowding is an acute problem for male prisoners.
2019 recorded the highest occupancy ratio in the last 10 years
Prisons in India have been overcrowded for many years now. In the last 10 years between 2010 and 2019, the occupancy ratio has been above 110% consistently. Since 2016, the occupancy ratio has been on the rise albeit at a slow place- from 113.7% in 2016 to 115.1% in 2017 to 117.6% in 2018, and to 118.5% in 2019. In the last 10 years, the highest overall occupancy ratio in Indian prisons was reported in 2019.
The increase in inmates and prison space are not proportional
Data indicates that the accommodation capacity of Indian prisons has increased from over 3.2 Lakh persons in 2010 to around 4.04 Lakh persons in 2019. Nonetheless, the population of inmates in the prisons across India has increased from over 3.69 Lakh persons to 4.79 Lakh persons during the same period. The total capacity of prisons crossed 4 lakh persons only in 2019 while the number of inmates has been more than 4 Lakhs since 2013. While the capacity has increased to accommodate another 83,289 persons, the number of inmates has grown by 1.09 lakh persons during the same period, thus increasing the occupancy ratio further. In the 10-year period from 2010 to 2019, the capacity of prisons in the country has increased by 26% while the occupancy has increased by 30%.
Prisons in 19 states were overcrowded
There is wide variation in prison occupancy ratio across different states. The prisons in 19 States were overcrowded by the end of 2019 and in seven of these, the occupancy ratio was above 150%. Two union territories- Delhi and Daman& Diu also reported overcrowding in 2019. Delhi had reported the highest occupancy ratio in 2019 with close to 175% followed by Uttar Pradesh with 168% and Uttarakhand with 159%. Meghalaya, Madhya Pradesh, Sikkim, Maharashtra, and Chhattisgarh were the other states with over 150% occupancy ratio. The occupancy ratio is high in Sikkim and Meghalaya, also because of the low prison capacity. In these two states, the capacity was 260 and 650 while the occupancy was 400 and 1023 respectively. In Uttar Pradesh however, the capacity was over 60,000 while the occupancy was over 1 lakh.
Number of inmates within the capacity in only 10 states
In the state of Bihar, the occupancy ratio was only 94.3%. There were close to 39,000 inmates in the state which had a total capacity of 42,222. The occupancy ratio was less than 100% in only 10 states. Among the states, Nagaland had the least occupancy ratio of 30.8%. Tripura had only half of its prisons filled. Tamil Nadu reported almost 63% occupancy and Manipur recorded close to 69%. Rajasthan (94.1), Odisha (91), Telangana (86.3), Andhra Pradesh (86.2%), and Goa (83%) also reported an occupancy ratio of less than 100.
Prisons in Tamil Nadu are filled only to 2/3rd of their capacity
Between 2010 & 2019, the occupancy rate in prisons of Bihar has always been below 100% except in 2017. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Nagaland, Tripura, Tamil Nadu, Chandigarh, and Puducherry are the only places where the occupancy ratio in prisons has consistently remained below 100%. In Tamil Nadu, the occupancy has always remained between 60 to 67% except in 2014 when it was 71.5%.
The trends within states shows that the occupancy ratio has increased in the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Odisha. Though the occupancy ratio has increased in Odisha, it continues to remain below 100%. In Jammu and Kashmir, the prisons were occupied below capacity up to 2017. In 2018 and 2019 however, the prisons here were overcrowded. In Madhya Pradesh, the occupancy has gradually increased from 122.5% in 2010 to 155.3% in 2019. In Maharashtra, the rise has been steeper- from 100.5% in 2010 to 152.7% in 2019.
Chhattisgarh had prison occupancy of more than 230% between 2010 and 2015
There has been a continuous decrease in the occupancy ratio of prisons in Jharkhand & Punjab. In Jharkhand which the prisons continue to remain overcrowded, the occupancy ratio has fallen from 140% in 2010 to 111% in 2019. Punjab has reported a decline in occupancy from 149% in 2011 to less than 96% in 2018. In 2019, the occupancy has slightly increased to102.9%. Chhattisgarh, which had an occupancy ratio of more than 230% between 2010 and 2015, has seen its prisons de-congesting in the last few years. Since 2016, the percentage occupancy has declined from 190% to 150%, even though it continues to remain overcrowded and is in the top-10 states in terms of occupancy ratio.
Almost 70% of the inmates in Indian prisons are under trials
What is alarming is that majority of the prison inmates in India are undertrials. As on 31 December 2019, over 3.27 lakh persons out of the 4.78 lakh persons lodged in prisons in India, accounting for 69.2% of the inmates, were undertrials. Only 30% of the inmates were convicts and 0.67% were detenues. Undertrials are those who are being held in custody while the trial for the crime is pending. In the last decade, there has been a marginal increase in the percentage of undertrials being held in prisons, from 65% in 2010 to 69% in 2019.
In Delhi, which recorded the largest occupancy ratio, over 82% of the inmates were undertrials. More than 80% of the inmates Delhi, Odisha, and Jammu & Kashmir were undertrials.
About 79% of the prison inmates were undertrials in the states of Bihar, Maharashtra & Uttar Pradesh though they have varying occupancy ratio. In Bihar, the occupancy ratio was less than 100%, while it was more than 150% in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. In contrast, states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which had a high occupancy ratio had only 54% undertrials confined in prisons.
Prisons are not only overcrowded but understaffed
Concomitantly, it is observed that the prisons in India are understaffed with only a strength of 60,787 as against the sanctioned strength of 87,599 (only 69.4% of vacancies filled)- adding to the difficulties in managing overcrowded prisons.
Measures to fast-track trials have not helped de-congest prisons
According to the latest response in the Lok Sabha in July 2019 regarding the overcrowding of prisons, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) stated that administration and management of prisons falls under the purview of the States. Further, MHA stated that it has issued advisories to the States and UTs for taking steps to provide free legal aid to undertrials and setting up Lok Adalats/Special courts in prisons for reviewing their cases. Additionally, the Model Prison Manual 2016 has been shared with states that has details about the facilities that may be provided to undertrials such as legal defence, interviews with lawyers, etc. National Legal Services Authority also provides free legal services to undertrial prisoners through legal service clinics which are running in jails in India. However, these measures have clearly not helped to de-congest prisons in the country.
Multiple studies and even the United Nations has devised strategies for reducing overcrowding in prisons, as this is a global issue and not limited to India. These measures include looking for non-custodial alternatives to detention before trial takes place and even after sentencing. Faster disposal of cases involving undertrials, rehabilitation program for those involved in minor crimes, adopting long term measures to reduce recidivism, are some of the strategies suggested by the UN. However, many of these measures will require changes to existing law.
Featured Image: Occupancy ratio in Indian Prisons