By Abdul Bari Masoud
New Delhi: In its latest analysis on prison occupancy, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative revealed that the last two years witnessed over 23 percent increase in Indian jails which have already overcrowded and have the most inhuman conditions. The report said over nine lakh more were arrested during the pandemic alone by the police.
In the wake of these findings, CHRI urged the Supreme Court, state governments, jail authorities, the rights bodies and legal institutions to take urgent steps to decongest prisons.
“Prison populations have alarmingly increased between December 2019 and November 2021 despite calls to the courts, the High Powered Committees and prison departments for an investigation behind such exceptional estimates” said CHRI in a statement. “This increase in prisoner population is far higher than the 2 to 4% increase in prisoner population each year,” it said.
Key findings of CHRI’s analysis include:
From 2019 to 2021 the average increase in prison populations in 17 states is recorded at 23 percent, whereas in previous years it was two-to-four percent.
*Prison occupancy on an average increased from 115 percent to 133 percent.
*The proportion of undertrials increased from 69 percent to 77 percent.
*The year 2020 witnessed nearly nine lakh more arrests than 2019 despite lockdowns and extensive restrictions on movement of the general public.
*Only 21 states proactively disclose prison statistics on their website
“India’s already overcrowded prisons are struggling to cater to the needs of prisoners. Increased arrests, delays in hearing of bail applications, and suspension of regular court work have resulted in this precarious situation,” said Madhurima Dhanuka, Head of CHRI’s Prison Reforms programme.
The statement stressed that the Supreme Court must take cognisance of the situation and orders the prioritised disposal of cases where the accused has been in detention.
Prison overcrowding can severely impact the already strained prison resources, leading to further spread of the virus, as well as other communicable diseases, the statement said.
“The exponential increase in arrest figures during 2020, when India was going through the suffering caused by Covid-19 is alarming and needs to be inquired into,” said Sanjoy Hazarika, CHRI’s Director.
CHRI also called upon the National Human Rights Commission to ensure regular inspection of overcrowded prisons by special rapporteurs and prison monitors. It called upon the Supreme Court constituted High Powered Committees to identify categories where trial and appeal proceedings can be prioritized, in addition to identifying categories of prisoners who can be released on bail or parole.
The latest analytical note by CHRI provides an analysis of prison population for 24 states and UTs, which constituted nearly 84 percent of the countries’ prisoners at the end of December 2019. Despite directives by the Supreme Court of India, 15 states and Union Territories do not regularly update information on prison population on their website. This is in contravention of their obligation to proactively disclose information under the Right to Information Act 2005.
How many prisoners are there in Indian jails?
According to the Prison Statistics India 2015 report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India’s prisons are overcrowded with an occupancy ratio of 14% more than the capacity. More than two-thirds of the inmates are undertrials. In absolute numbers, UP had the highest number of undertrials (62,669), followed by Bihar (23,424) and Maharashtra (21,667). In Bihar, 82% of prisoners were undertrials, the highest among states
Prison population total (including pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners) 478 600 at 31.12.2019 (National Crime Records Bureau)
Official capacity of prison system 403 739 (31.12.2019)
Occupancy level (based on official capacity) 118.5% (31.12.2019)
Furthermore, out of these 2.82 lakh undertrial inmates, over 55% are Muslims, Dalits and tribals. Collectively, these three communities form a population of 39% with a share of 14.2%, 16.6% and 8.6% of population respectively according to the 2011 census. But the proportion of prisoners, both convicted and undertrials, from these communities is larger than their share in the country’s population.
As far as conviction is concerned, they seem to get convicted faster than the rest as they account for 50.4% of all convicts. Among Muslims, the community’s share of convicts is 15.8%, slightly above their representation in population, but their share among undertrials (20.9%) is far higher.
There may be numerous reasons for such a phenomenon. One of these, i think, is the low level of literacy among these groups. According to the report of NFHS 5, the literacy rates of muslim, Dalit and tribal males are 81 %, 80.3 % and 78 % against 84.7 % for all males. Similarly the literacy rates of muslim, Dalit and tribal females are 69 %, 64 % and 61 % against 70.3 % for all females.