Congested jails

The serious overcrowding of Indian jails that Minister of State for Home Ajay Maken has drawn attention to is cause for concern. It appears that jails are overcrowded by 135 per cent. India’s 1,276 jails have an authorised total capacity of 2,77,304 inmates, Maken has said. But the number currently being held in these jails is over 3.76 lakh.

Overcrowding has imposed a heavy burden on the already creaking infrastructure of our jails. It is also a strain on prison security. It may be recalled that in late 2007, inmates of Patna’s Beur Central Jail went on a rampage to protest the suicide of a sick inmate and poor facilities in the jail. A few weeks later, Jalandhar jail erupted in violence when inmates protested against poor living conditions. They set buildings in jail premises ablaze. Jalandhar jail held three times the number of inmates its infrastructure could support. These instances of breakdown of discipline and security in jails can be traced directly to overcrowding and poor living conditions. Some will argue that living conditions in prisons should be shabby as those living there are being punished. It is not anybody’s argument that jail inmates should be provided with comforts. But they have the right to be treated as humans and that means a critical minimum level of decent living conditions.
Many of those who are languishing in jails should not be in prison in the first place. Undertrials account for roughly 66 per cent of the jail population. Many of them are in jail for petty crimes but have spent more years here than the sentence their offense deserves. They are victims of a judicial system that is excruciatingly slow in dispensing justice. There have been instances of undertrials languishing in jail for several decades for stealing a goat or getting into a drunken brawl.

If the number of undertrials is reduced Indian jails would not be overcrowded. The government has spent over Rs 1.8 billion over the past six years to expand and improve infrastructure in jails. But constructing more and better prisons while necessary will not by itself address the problem of overcrowding. The root of the problem lies in the slow delivery of justice. Fast track courts have been set up but their numbers are inadequate. The government must set up more such courts. There is an urgent need for jail and judicial reform.

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