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Data: Prisons in India continue to be Overcrowded despite COVID-19

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Multiple institutions including the Supreme Court, NHRC, the UN had called for decongestion of prisons, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as data indicates, prisons in India continued to be overcrowded by the end of 2020 with the trend of overcrowding continuing in certain states.

The problem of prison overcrowding attracted greater attention during the pandemic, even though the problem has been persistent around the world for many years. During the pandemic, prisons emerged as hotspots of infection. According to UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as of May 2021, over 5.5 lakh prisoners in 122 countries had contracted the COVID-19 virus. Over 4,000 prison fatalities were also reported from 47 countries. The enforcement of COVID-19 prevention measures such as social distancing and maintaining hygiene are difficult in overcrowded prisons. To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, prisons resorted to limiting recreation, work opportunities and visitations which are vital for rehabilitation. Further, a few countries decided to release many persons who were held in custody such as convicts of non-violent offences, and remand prisoners. Since March 2020, about 7 lakh persons accounting for roughly 6% of the estimated global prison population, were authorized or considered eligible for temporary release in 119 countries. 

SC issued directions to decongest the overcrowded prisons in India in wake of COVID-19

Taking cognizance of the potential risk, the Supreme Court in March 2020 issued several directions for decongestion of prisons including setting up of High Powered Committees in all states/UTs to determine which prisoners may be released on interim bail or parole, on the basis of the nature of offence, the number of years to which the prisoner had been sentenced, or the severity of the offence for which they have been charged. Various High Courts have also issued guidelines in this matter. According to a study that cites data from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a total of 68,264 prisoners were released on interim bail across the country until 14 December 2020 as per the guidelines of the Committees. However, the number cannot be considered final as the period of data compiled from different states is not uniform. CHRI’s recent update also states that though many prisoners were released by June 2020, they were all recalled by December 2020. In other words, there was very little if not no impact on overcrowding. This was also because of a greater number of arrests in 2020 compared to 2019. 

Prison Statistics India 2020 report was released recently

Recently, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) released the annual Prisons Statistics India (PSI) for 2020 which provides comprehensive statistical information on various aspects of prison administration in India. The report for the first time in 2020 included the Transgender category in the gender classification of prisoners. Additionally, the 2020 report also provides data of the NGOs working exclusively for the welfare of women prisoners.

Data from West Bengal for the year 2018 and 2019 was not received for the publication of Prison Statistics India 2018 & 2019 because of which the data for 2017 was used in both 2018 & 2019. However, this year, West Bengal has furnished data for 2018, 2019, and 2020. The data for 2018 & 2019 has been factored in this year’s publication. 

Prison Occupancy rate still at 118 by the end of 2020

According to the latest publication, as of 31 December 2020, there were 4.89 lakh persons lodged in 1,306 prisons across the country. The actual capacity of these prisons was 4.14 lakh persons. In other words, there were 4.89 lakh persons in the prisons in the country which can accommodate only 4.14 lakh persons.

The occupancy rate of the prisons in India is calculated as the percentage of the ratio of inmate population to total capacity in prisons. An occupancy rate 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. By the end of 2020, the occupancy rate of the prisons in the country was 118%. That is, despite the measures taken during the pandemic, the prisons continued to be overcrowded in the country. Further, overcrowding is a bigger problem for male prisoners since the occupancy rate of male prisoners was 121.3% while that of women was only 72.2%. 

Indian prisons have been overcrowded for many years now. In the last decade, the overall occupancy rate was the lowest in 2011 when it was 112.1% and the highest in 2019 when the occupancy rate crossed 120% for the first time since 2011. In 2020, the occupancy dropped by 1.9 percentage points as compared to 2019. Throughout the decade, the occupancy rate has been above 112%. Contrary to expectation, overcrowding did not reduce in 2020 as the released prisoners were recalled by the end of 2020, CHRI noted in its latest report

The capacity of Indian prisons not increasing on par with the increase in the inmate population

Between 2011 and 2020, the capacity of Indian prisons has gone up by 24.4% from 3.33 lakhs to 4.14 lakhs. During the same period, the population of inmates has gone up by 31% from 3.73 lakhs in 2011 to 4.89 lakhs in 2020. In other words, as against the increase in prison capacity by 24.4%, the prison population increased by a greater percentage. 

During the previous decade, the capacity has increased to accommodate another 81,251 persons while the population of inmates has gone up by approximately 1.16 lakhs, which increased the occupancy rate. 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.

UP had the highest occupancy rate of 177% in 2020 while TN had only 60.6%

As of 31 December 2020, the occupancy rate of prisons across states varied from 177% in Uttar Pradesh to 27% in Nagaland. The prisons in 17 states/UTs were overcrowded by the end of 2020, down from 19 states/UTs in 2019. Of the 17 states/UTs where the occupancy rate was above 100%, the occupancy rate was above the national occupancy rate of 118% in 11 of the states/UTs including Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. Among large states, Tamil Nadu had the lowest occupancy rate of 60.6%. Manipur, Tripura, and Nagaland had below 50% occupancy. The occupancy rate was below 100% in 18 states/UTs including each of the south Indian states, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Haryana. 

Among large states, only AP, TN, Odisha, & Telangana were not overcrowded throughout the decade

The trend in occupancy rates between 2011 and 2020 across states reveals the following:

  • The states of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Manipur, Nagaland, and Tripura have always had an occupancy rate below 100%. That is, the prisons in these states have always been filled below capacity in each of the years of the last decade.  
  • The occupancy rate in Tamil Nadu has always been below 70% (except in 2014). In Odisha, though there has been a gradual increase in the occupancy rate, it is still below 100%.
  • The states of Bihar, Goa, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, and Uttarakhand had reported an increase in occupancy rate in 2020 in contrast to the efforts to decongest prisons during the pandemic. The occupancy rate was above 100% in Bihar only in 2017 (100.7%) and in 2020 (113.2%). 
  • Chhattisgarh had an occupancy ratio of more than 230% between 2010 and 2015. Since 2016, the occupancy rate has been decreasing, although the prisons in the state continue to be overcrowded.
  • The occupancy ratio in Madhya Pradesh has been increasing continuously from 128.2% in 2011 to 158.6% in 2020 and is now among the top 5 states with high occupancy rates. 
  • While Uttar Pradesh and Delhi reported an occupancy rate of more than 150% throughout the decade, the states of Assam, Jharkhand, and Meghalaya have had overcrowded prisons since 2011. 

Majority Undertrials & understaffing continue even in 2020

About 76.1% of the inmate population, nearly 3.72 lakhs, were undertrials as of 31 December 2020. Convicts and detenues constituted 23% and 0.7% respectively. The share of undertrials was 65% in 2011 and has remained below 70% throughout the decade. Among the states, as per the 2020 report, about 91% of the persons lodged in prisons in Delhi and Jammu & Kashmir were undertrials, while the share was above 80% in Bihar, Maharashtra, and Haryana, among other states/UTs, despite overcrowding in those states. 

Understaffing of prisons continues to be a major problem. The actual strength of prison staff in the country was 61,296 as of 31 December 2020 against the sanctioned strength of 87,961. In other words, prisons were working with only 70% of the sanctioned staff strength despite an increasing problem of overcrowding. 

Overcrowding needs to be addressed urgently

During the COVID-19 pandemic, though organizations like the UN and National Human Rights Commission, called for decongestion of prisons, it is seen that most states continue to have overcrowded prisons. Though prisons are supposed to reform and rehabilitate the offenders, the issues of overcrowding, understaffing, and insufficient funds which continue to plague the prisons in India, affecting their ability to function as reformation centres. 

It is true that the issue of overcrowding is not new and not restricted to India alone. However, these issues assume greater importance amidst the COVID-19 pandemic as prison inmates are one of the most vulnerable groups. It is time the governments take immediate notice & take steps to reduce overcrowding. 

Featured Image: Prisons in India during COVID-19

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