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Overcrowding & Staff vacancies plague Indian Prisons

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The India Justice Report 2020 highlights the multiple issues plaguing the prison system in India. The report notes that only about 60% had videoconferencing facilities restricting their ability to have virtual hearings. Overcrowding & staff vacancies continue to plague the prison system.

The second edition of the India Justice Report (IJR) which ranks Indian states on four pillars of Justice delivery- Police, Judiciary, Prisons and Legal Aid, was released recently. The study is an initiative of Tata Trusts in collaboration with Centre for Social Justice, Common Cause, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, DAKSH, Tata Institute of Social Sciences–Prayas, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, and How India Lives. 

The study ranks the states based on quantitative measurements of budgets, human resources, infrastructure, workload, diversity across police, judiciary, prisons, and legal aid in 18 large and medium-sized states with a population of over 1 crore and 7 small states. Data for 7 Union Territories (UTs) and 4 other unranked states is also provided in the report. Publicly available data of different government entities and the judiciary are used in the report. This report assumes significance in the light of disruption caused by COVID-19. 

Supreme court rolled out virtual hearings during COVID-19 lockdown

All physical hearings were suspended by the Supreme Court from the latter half of March 2020 because of the pandemic. Virtual Court hearings or videoconferencing was rolled out by the apex court to overcome the restrictions posed by the pandemic. An interim report on the challenges faced in the virtual court proceedings was tabled by a parliamentary standing committee recently. The standing committee report highlighted that the digital divide in terms of access, connectivity, and skill was a major roadblock in accessing virtual courts. Almost 50% of the lawyers did not have a laptop or computer, according to a representative of the Bar Council. The report, however, did not mention the infrastructural shortcomings in Indian prisons. 

40% Prisons lack videoconferencing facility

According to the India Justice Report 2020, only 808 jails in India of the total 1,350 jails had the facility for videoconferencing as of 31 December 2019. (The data is from the NCRB’s annual Prison Statistics India report for 2019). This implies that only about 60% of the Indian prisons had videoconferencing facilities and the remaining 40% did not have such facilities as of early 2020. 

State-wise data indicates that Haryana, Uttarakhand, and Assam had videoconferencing facilities in all the jails. Smaller states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and even Delhi had also recorded 100%. 

Punjab had the facility in 96% of the jails followed by Bihar and Telangana with 95% each. Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and UP also have video conferencing facilities in more than 90% of the jails. On the other side, only 9% of the jails in Tamil Nadu have the facility, the least among all states with such facilities. Karnataka (31%), Tripura (31%), and West Bengal (32%) follow Tamil Nadu in that order from the bottom. 

Prison occupancy is the highest in 2019 since 2010

The other indicator besides jails with a video conferencing facility under the parameter of infrastructure in the IJR 2020 is the prison occupancy. It is seen that the number of prisons in the country has dropped to 1,350 in 2019 from 1,412 in 2016. Meanwhile, the total prison population in India has increased to over 4.78 lakh from 4.33 lakh during the same period. This implies that more people must be accommodated in fewer jails further congesting the already over-crowded prisons. The growth in infrastructure is not on par with the increasing prison population. 

Data from the past decade shows that the occupancy ratio in the prisons was the highest in 2019 with 118.5% during the 2010-2019 period.  Since 2016, the occupancy ratio has been on the rise albeit at a slow pace- from 113.7% in 2016 to 115.1% in 2017 to 117.6% in 2018, and to 118.5% in 2019. Under-trials constituted about 70% of the prison inmates.  

Among states, the prison occupancy ratio varies from 31% in Nagaland to 175% in Delhi. In 20 States/UTs, the prisons were overcrowded. Of the remaining 16 States/UTs where the prisons had inmates within the capacity, five are union territories. Bihar, Rajasthan, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu had reported an occupancy ratio of less than 100% as of December 2019. All southern states except Kerala had an occupancy ratio below 100%. 

One in three posts for prison staff is vacant on average

Besides overcrowding, another constraint for Indian prisons is understaffing. There is not adequate staff to manage the overcrowded prisons in the country. Hence, the existing staff is overworked. According to the report, the average prison staff vacancy is over 30% across all prison staff levels over the last three years. That is, about one in three positions is vacant. Prison staff includes officers, cadre staff, and correctional staff. Filling up these vacancies helps reduce the workload of staff and better management of prisons. 

The percentage of vacancies for officers ranges from less than 1% in Telangana to more than 75% in Uttarakhand. The states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh have about two-thirds of the officers’ posts vacant. It is also seen that in Uttarakhand, Bihar, and Jharkhand, the number of inmates per officer is among the highest with more than 330 inmates per officer. On the other hand, in Tamil Nadu where the vacancy is 9% and the prison population is within capacity, there are 17 inmates per officer.

Staff-inmate ratio does not adhere to benchmark stipulated by Model Police Manual

Likewise, the vacancy for cadre staff varies from 63.3% in Jharkhand to about 7% in Maharashtra among larger states and none in Nagaland. Jharkhand, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Chandigarh have more than half the posts vacant for cadre staff. At least one in five posts among cadre staff is vacant in 22 states/UTs. Though the Model Prison Manual,2016 suggests that there should be one cadre staff for 6 inmates, the ratio is as high as 25 and 23 inmates per cadre staff respectively in Jharkhand and UP.

The Model Prison Manual 2016, specifically characterizes correctional work as a “specialized field”. Correctional officers include persons such as welfare officers, psychologists, counsellors, etc. who may help the prisoner reform. The states of Haryana, Punjab, Goa, Assam, and Manipur did not have any correctional officers as per the NCRB data cited in IJR. The vacancies were below 50% in 9 states/UTs, and zero in Jharkhand, Telangana, and UP. Also, data for 9 states/UTs is unavailable. 

The national average stands at one probation/welfare officer per 1,617 prisoners as against the Model Prison Manual’s requirement of one correctional officer for every 200 prisoners. Only Bihar, Odisha, and J&K have adhered to the benchmark. The number of prison inmates per correctional staff is 50,649 in UP which has reported zero vacancies. The ratio in Gujarat is 15089 inmates per correctional officer.  Apart from these two states, 5 states have crossed the threshold of 1000 inmates per staff. 

Share of Women staff is below 10% in 17 states/UTs

With respect to the share of women staff in prisons, Karnataka topped the list with more than 26% women staff in prisons. Mizoram, Nagaland, and Sikkim too have more than 20% women staff. However, no state/UT was close to the 33% benchmark for diversity as suggested. In 17 states/UTs including UP, West Bengal, Telangana, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, and Gujarat, the proportion of women in prison staff was below 10%.

Maharashtra and Punjab spend less than Rs. 45 per day for each inmate

The expenditure on inmates is mainly for food, medical care, clothing, and vocational/education activities. The report states that the average spend per prisoner has gone up by nearly 45% in four years between 2016-17 & 2019-20. Andhra Pradesh spent the most- more than Rs. 2 lakh per inmate 2019-20, which is about Rs. 550 per inmate per day. Delhi, Haryana, and Lakshadweep spend above Rs. 1 Lakh for the same. About 14 states/UTs including MP, Punjab, Telangana, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra spend below Rs.30,000 per year- which translates to less than Rs. 82 per day for each inmate. 

Implementation of committee recommendations is poor 

Prisons are for the reformation and rehabilitation of offenders, and not for mere confinement. Prisons are legally supposed to provide basic amenities to the inmates. Overcrowding, understaffing, and insufficient funds continue to plague Indian prisons and hence restrict their ability to act as reformation centers. These issues have been existent for years, and various committees such as Justice Mulla Committee, Justice V R Krishna Iyer Committee, and institutes like BPRD continue to study the problems and make recommendations. However, the implementation of these recommendations has been tardy. 

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