By: Dr. Satyawan Saurabh
According to the National Crime Records Bureau report, the prison capacity has increased from 3.32 lakh to 4.25 lakh in the last decade, a growth of 27%, while the number of prisoners has increased from 3.7 lakh to 5.54 lakh in the same period. This imbalance has caused the rate to increase from 112% to 130% over the past decade. Statistics also show that Indian jails have reached an explosive state, battling with the crowd of prisoners. In the latest report on the condition of the prisons of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), it was said that as of 31 December 2021, in the country’s total 1,319 jails, on an average, 130 prisoners were living in the designated place for every 100 prisoners.
The main reason behind overcrowding is the undertrial prisoners as they account for 77 percent of the total holdings. According to Prison Statistics India 2021, there has been a decrease of 9.5 percent in the number of prisoners in jails while the number of undertrials has increased by 45.8 percent between 2016-2021. The pace of building new infrastructure is slow. As the number of prisoners increases and there is no additional space available to house them, prisons become overcrowded. There has been an increase in the number of people placed under preventive detention.
Taking action against poverty and social marginalization through fair social policies and crime prevention is critical to preventing crime and violence and in turn reducing prison overcrowding. The review and re-classification of offenses would give courts the possibility to impose non-custodial sanctions and measures or shorter prison terms for a large number of offenses. e.g. Imprisoning children as a measure of last resort. One in four undertrials has been imprisoned for a year or more, and one in eight has been incarcerated for two to five years, according to 2020 Indian government data. In the decade from 2010 to the 2020s, the percentage of undertrials in prison for a year or more increased from about seven percent to 29%.
These figures suggest that more prisoners are awaiting trial in India than ever before, and more prisoners are spending longer in jail than ever before. This means that three out of every four prisoners in India are serving a penal sentence without being convicted of any crime. In addition, as more people are arrested each day, more people spend more time in jail awaiting trial, adding to overcrowding in our prisons. This increased overcrowding increases the risk of the spread of communicable diseases in our prisons, which already struggle with unhygienic conditions and filth, where health care is not readily available, the CHRI report explains.
Improving the efficiency of the criminal justice system can lead to the simplification of procedural laws so that courts can spend less time processing petty cases and free up time to process serious and complex cases e.g. Computer-based case tracking system traditional alternatives to imprisonment, such as fines, community service orders; Suspended sentences (used in Germany). It may be better to focus on building new infrastructure to accommodate the growing number of prisoners. The speedy trial, liberal bail provision, and amendment in Acts to make offenses compoundable can also solve the problem. The Dickensian idea of building more prisons is not a permanent solution. Judiciary, lawmakers, and government should act quickly to overcome this menace.
Although a new bail law alone will not help solve the problem if arbitrary arrests continue, argues Dhanuka, India has a serious issue concerning high undertrial populations, and the methods used in other parts of the world It would be prudent to look for solutions, and good practices that can be adapted depending on the need.
Experts believe that Indian courts do not have enough information about the socio-economic status of undertrial prisoners and the impact this has on their ability to grant bail. According to government data, two out of three undertrial prisoners in India belong to marginalized caste groups including Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC). Furthermore, about 68% of all undertrial prisoners are illiterate or have less than a secondary school education. (The author is a Research scholar, poet, freelance journalist and columnist, All India Radio and TV panelist)