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Cramped Jails in India: Need for Reforms

Published: 12th Nov, 2019

Recently, National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has released the “Prison Statistics India – 2017”.


Major Challenge for Prisons across the country

Despite the Supreme Court and other institutions regularly raising the issue of prison reforms and decongestion in jails, it is evident that the measures taken have been piecemeal in most States. The major challenges for prison system in India are:

  • Overcrowding of Civil Jails : While overall occupancy rates in jails have come down from 140% in 2007 to 115% in 2017, only a few States have, in this period, gone about building more jails or increasing capacity in prisons in line with the changes in inmate population.
  • Lack of Personnel: The vacant posts in the jail administration constitute another major challenge for prisons across the country.
  • Healthcare for Prisoners: People believe that prisoners are sent to prison as punishment, and not for punishment. This implies that the loss of an individual’s right to liberty is enforced by containment in a closed environment. Thus keeping the individual in the custody of the state, should not, however, have a deleterious effect on him.
  • Role of Judiciary in Protecting the Rights of Prisoners: Judiciary in every country has an obligation and a Constitutional role to protect Human Rights of citizens. As per the mandate of the Constitution of India, this function is assigned to the superior judiciary namely the Supreme Court of India and High courts.
  • The Problems of Under-trials: Criminal Law of India is a replica of colonial times. It is hostile to the poor and the weaker sections of society.
  • Taking Prisoners’ Rights Seriously: In the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, a shocking state of affairs in regard to the administration of justice came forward. An alarmingly large number of men and women, including children are behind prison bars for years awaiting trial in the court of law.

Prison Reforms

The focus on improving prison oversight and reducing prolonged, illegal or unnecessary detention we must push for reforms in prison system along these lines:

  • prioritize the proper functioning of prison oversight mechanisms
  • advocate for early access to counsel and improve legal aid practices
  • partner with law schools to develop legal aid clinics that provide free legal support to prisoners
  • assess the pre-trial practices of court
  • work with governments for early repatriation of foreign national prisoners
  • ensure timely release and rehabilitation of vulnerable groups in prison
  • build capacity of criminal justice functionaries related to prisons
  • litigate in public interest and on behalf of individuals
  • undertake research on various aspects of criminal justice system particularly using right to information
  • develop resources and training material on wide range of issues

Case Study

  • Some States such as Tamil Nadu have reduced their prison occupancy rate (to 61.3%) by increasing the number of jails and their capacity.
  • Besides increasing the jails and their capacity, steps have been taken for reducing arrests for actions unless there is a cognisable offence made out.

Way forward:

  • In its report in May 2017, the Law Commission highlighted the inconsistencies in the bail system as one of the key reasons for overcrowding in prisons. Expediting the trial process for such prisoners is the most important endeavor. There are ways to decongest prisons by granting relief to under trials.
    • The Commission recommended that those detained for offences that come with a punishment of up to seven years of imprisonment should be released on completing one-third of that period and for those charged with offences that attract a longer jail term, after they complete half of that period.
    • For those who have spent the whole period as undertrials, the period undergone should be considered for remission.
    • It also recommended that the police should avoid needless arrests, while magistrates should refrain from mechanical remand orders.
  • It is imperative that these recommendations are incorporated into law soonest.
  • Prison statistics provide information on the kind of facilities available for reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners, robust policies must be formulated, which would ensure successful reintegration of prisoners and provide those serving life-term imprisonments an opportunity to reform.

Verifying, please be patient.

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