Revitalising Indian prisons

Revitalising Indian prisons

Most Indians are happy to forget that jails exist, until news arrives of a jail-break or of some politician, businessman or film actor being put behind bars. The prison system is marked by the monopoly coercive force of the State. The contemporary prison system is also overcrowded with undertrials, and is plagued by shocking tales of torture and violence and incredibly high expenses, all of which challenge our criminal justice system. The government has attempted to address this crisis by introducing reforms in a phased manner.

Incarceration has been increasingly recast as a humane cure for social deviance rather than a punishment and deterrent to crime. In western countries, most prison labour programmes producing economic goods were created in part to offset the costs of incarceration. In recent decades, privatisation of prisons has taken centre-stage as a state response to the prison crisis. It is estimated that worldwide, there are 184 privately operated correctional facilities accommodating 1,32,346 inmates. The US has a total of 158 private correctional facilities and those jails have been turned into economic enterprises. In fact, it has become a $4.8 billion industry in America.

As per Prison Statistics India (2015), Indian prisons are afflicted with overcrowding, unhygienic food and unhealthy atmosphere, poor medical facilities, etc. The occupancy rate at the national level was, unbelievably, 114.4%. The staggering figures related to undertrials are equally worrisome. As per the latest statistics, 67% of the inmates are undertrials. Among the larger states, the percentage of undertrial prisoners is higher – like in Bihar (82.4%), followed by Jammu & Kashmir (81.5%), Odisha (78.8%), Jharkhand (77.1%) and Delhi (76.7%). In 2015, a total of 1,584 prisoners died in jails; 1,469 of these were natural deaths, but the other 115 deaths were attributed to unnatural causes. Two-thirds of all the unnatural deaths (77) were reported to be suicides, while 11 were said to be murders committed by fellow inmates.

The prisons have far exceeded their carrying and caring capacity. The condition of our jails can well be imagined where 368,998 prisoners are stuffed into prisons that can accommodate only 2,77,304. That’s not all -- our prisoners die less due to death sentence by a court, but more due to curable diseases like Malaria, TB and Typhoid, and of course, the inhuman treatment they receive. According to the National Human Rights Commission, 70% of the deaths due to curable diseases like TB, the spread of which is caused by the overcrowding and sordid conditions prevalent in the prisons.

It is often argued that by contracting out correctional facilities to private firms, the quality of imprisonment can be improved and money can be saved. Under these circumstances, the correctional agency remains the financier and continues to manage and maintain policy control over the quality of services provided. Of late, prisons have turned out to be a huge liability on stat and society, and has lost their very essence as correctional homes.

The money spent from the public exchequer on a prisoner is much more than the estimated expenditure of rural Indians on food, clothing and medical needs. On an average, Rs 30,000 is spent on a prisoner per year, whereas the annual consumption expenditure in rural India is only about Rs 17,000. The irony is that the prison service is funded by the very aggrieved persons who are the victims of the convicts. The worst part is that our prisons are no more correctional centres. In the absence of a dedicated skill enhancement programme inside jail, the inmates are left with no option but to re-enter the criminal world when they step out.

However, prison managers believe that the inmates are better motivated than their free counterparts because they are always on time, they take no vacations, and the best of them work with a passionate intensity. Private correctional facilities are a huge industry in the US, with 88 factories operating in 79 prisons, a total employment of 14,200 inmates and an annual turnover of $745 million in 2011. Blue-chip companies like Motorola, IBM, Compaq, Chevron and many more regularly utilise the services of prisoners in the US and in many European countries. Clearly, one can make out that in a country like India, where the efficacy gap between privately operated and publicly operated enterprises is extremely steep, enhanced efficiency can be expected if private parties are allowed to operate jails.

Private sector involvement in running prisons in the US and the UK has lessons for India, including the profit element overriding serious objectives. There might be some glaring deficiencies in privatising the correctional services, but India can learn lessons from these deficiencies faced by the western world. Prison labour will teach the inmates the value and pleasure of hard work, thrill of creative efforts to reform their character and foster a good work culture, making them competent for the new labour market waiting outside the jail. But many say that there is an inherent indecency in adopting such a route as prisoners are human beings, not merely meant to generate profits for shareholders.

The Indian government should take steps to privatise correctional facilities, which can blossom into a vibrant industry. The recently launched ‘Skill India’ mission of the Government of India may be aligned with this goal. It might seem like a distant dream now, but there is no harm in trying out the idea in a phased manner. It would be magical to witness such professionalism in prisons -- which could eventually create an environment wherein prisoners could be trained for their own well-being. Jail inmates are capable of emerging as the new workforce for India's private sector and they have good potential. But can governments that are not even sure about retail privatisation push for the privatisation of prisons?

(The writer is a Supreme Court advocate)

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