The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons, it is said. If one measures India by this yardstick, it may have very little to cheer. The government has failed in bringing about jail reforms despite having ambitious modernisation programmes and spending crores of rupees. A report on prison reforms in India and what went wrong.
Humanity, fairness and efficiency with which countries manage their prisons is a key index of the state of democracy. Winston Churchill said: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”
There is near unanimity among scholars that the criminal justice policy is largely irrelevant in reducing incidence of crimes. Incarceration rates are higher in countries whose capacity for regulating the macroeconomy and containing inequality are weak. The “culture of control” is a product of the dynamics of liberal market economies. We in India continue to follow “culture of control” and a tendency to “govern through crime”.
In fact, high rates of imprisonment do offend the value of individual autonomy and liberal principles of parsimony in punishment. Unlike neo-liberal countries like the US, which believes in mass incarceration, social-democratic Scandinavian countries believe in humane and moderate penal and prison policies.
Conditions in Indian jails are staggeringly harsh, right to dignity is routinely violated, discrimination of every kind is the norm, similar to that faced by the blacks and latinos in the US. The Dalits, minorities and the poor are over represented in prisons, overcrowding is widespread, rape and other forms of sexual violence are endemic and constructive prison regimes are extremely rare.
India is currently placed seventh in a global ranking for the least rate of incarceration. The incarceration rate across the world range from 36 per 1,00,000 population in Iceland to 737 in the US, with Britain at 148.
Congestion in jail remains a serious problem. In India, occupancy rate stands at 118.4 per cent. At present, jails in 17 states are overcrowded with Chhattisgarh (261 per cent) and Delhi (216.8 per cent) topping the charts. Less than one-third of the people in prison are convicts as undertrials make up a shocking 67.6 per cent of the total inmate population.
Unless measures are taken to address this, no matter how many new prison facilities are created, overcrowding will not be controlled. As a result of overcrowding, quarrel for space to sleep is common. But this, sadly, is the least of a prisoners’ worry.
The dirty barracks – with a toilet for 50 to 70 inmates (sanctioned for around 25) – crawling with rodents, insects and mosquitoes, is also place for rampant skin infections. Smoking cigarettes, smuggled through the “corrupt” guards, leads to breathing complications, while power cuts and poor lighting adds to their misery.
Sanitation and health thus deserve immediate attention. The UN human rights experts on water and sanitation have categorically emphasised that “states must ensure that everyone, including people in detention, have access to safe sanitation. Without it, detention conditions are inhumane, and contrary to the basic human dignity which underpins all human rights.”
Another major issue that can be identified with the prisons is the jail staff. It is their job, in large part, to smoothly manage the day-to-day existence of the inmates. They are woefully understaffed, underpaid and thus utterly incapable of fulfilling the task at hand.
In 2007, their strength stood at around 80 per cent of the sanctioned strength, while the inmate to staff ratio was 7:1. By 2013, after Modernization Phase-I, it has fallen to 67.4 per cent and 8:1 respectively. Not only is there a severe shortage of staff, the jails are also poorly maintained. This leads to other issues, of which corruption is primary. Though extortion by the staff is common to prisons around the world, it tends to be entrenched within a system where substantial power is exercised by the guards over inmates. More often than not, the root of these issues can be traced back to poor remuneration for the staff.
However, corruption is not the only factor in such cases – often it comes down to caste equations. Rigid class and caste systems do exist in the prisons. Under this system, special privileges are accorded to the minority of prisoners who come from the upper classes irrespective of the crimes they have committed.
So what is the way out? Immediate prison reforms must first include technical and vocational education needs as 71.17 per cent of our convicts and 70 per cent of undertrials are just matriculate or below. Inmates trained under various vocational training programmes in 2013 stood at a woeful 15.53 per cent. Secondly, once a person falls foul with the law, efforts need to be made to make meaningful legal aid available to the accused both at trial as well as pre-trial stage.
Fund for bail
Thirdly, a large majority of undertrials are too poor to arrange their bail bond. The government must set up a fund to pay for the same, especially in cases of women and children. Fourthly, the government is spending just Rs 67.85 per day on an inmate nationally. This meagre amount purportedly covers expenditure under the heads of food, clothing, medical expenses, vocational/educational, welfare activities and others.
Instead of undertaking any of the above reforms, the government has issued a notification laying guidelines for visiting jails. It categorically states that no person “should ordinarily be allowed to enter prisons for doing” any research, academic or for making a movie/writing an investigative piece. The guidelines, however, state that such a visit may be allowed if the state feels it may create a “positive social impact”.
Even in such cases, the visitor must apply a month in advance. Once these conditions are met and permission is granted by the “Home/Prison Department of the concerned State/UT,” the visitor must make “a security deposit of Rs 1 lakh”. The appalling guidelines go on to require the presence of a senior officer during the interview and he must “immediately intervene on-the-spot” if the interview conducted “is not desirable”.
They also require that the visitor “handover all equipment” and only collect it after the authorities have checked for “anything objectionable” that must be deleted forthwith. Finally, the end product, whether written or in form of a film, cannot be published/released until a “no objection certificate” is procured from the relevant authority. These guidelines clearly violate the fundamental right to communicate of prisoners and right to information of citizens.
The government must undertake relative cost-benefit analysis of imprisonment under the new concept of “zemiology”. Though we must increase our per capita expenditure on prisoners by at least five times, in reality, increased spending on prisons is nothing but a sort of fiscal mismanagement. The best prison reform is to keep people out of prisons altogether. Let the Narendra Modi government accept this enlightened view.
Courtesy: Deccan Herald