The annual report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says that the average overcrowding rate in Indian prisons is 14 per cent. What the report does not reveal is that 149 jails in the country are overcrowded by more than 100 per cent and that eight are overcrowded by margins of a staggering 500 per cent.
These alarming statistics were revealed in the Centre's reply in response to a question in the Lok Sabha on August 8. It also brought into focus the horrendous levels in Satyamangalam sub-jail in Erode district of Tamil Nadu where 200 prisoners are "stuffed" in a space meant for 16 people.
The overcrowding rate actually oversimplifies an understanding of the problem. What this statistic fails to capture is the feeling of being stuck in a dark, dingy enclosed area where privacy is non-existent, where threats of bodily violations constantly loom, where money and power determines the floor space you get to stretch your legs, where the entry of "more guests" implies the quality and quantity of food and sanitation would further suffer.
Prisoners in India are usually housed together in mega dormitories, where inmates are kept in close proximity with little regard for dignity and basic living conditions. This is a far cry from the UN's Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which suggest that prison accommodation shall be mindful of "minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation".
While prisons have been recognised as a correctional facility worldwide, Indian prisons are still governed by a 123-year-old law -- The Prisons Act. The prisons are just like the Act that governs them: rusty, outdated, neglected. This directly impacts the occupants of these prisons.
Overcrowding takes a toll on already constrained prison resources and even makes separation between different classes of prisoners difficult.
The Bureau for Police Research and Development's report on the implementation of the Mulla Committee recommendations revealed that 60 per cent of the jails were unable to assign new prisoners to a particular barrack or ward due to overcrowding.
One needs to break up the problem to understand its dimension beyond percentage levels of overcrowding.
The rate suffers from multiple limitations. Most Indian prisons were built in the colonial era, are in constant need of repair and part of them are unhabitable for long periods. While the prison capacity gets reduced on the ground, this is not reflected in official figures.
Also undertrial and convicted prisoners have to be housed separately. So do inmates with mental disabilities and those with communicable diseases. These segregations further impacts the occupancy levels for inmates but the occupancy rate does not account for this.
With high levels of understaffing, the situation becomes even worse. As a result of lack of supervision, inmates are confined in their cells for longer hours. This increases the possibility of tensions and violence. With limited resources to manage and contain these incidents, the functioning of prisons also becomes order-oriented, there is limited attention on correctional facilities, reform and need for privacy.
If the overall objective is to make prison conditions "human", it is crucial to identify the primary causes for overcrowding. There is clearly a problem of both supply and demand. With 33 prisoners per 100,000 population, India has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world. If the state is unable to adequately house these prisoners, it is a reflection of the priority it accords to prison and broadly criminal justice.
The government needs to build more prisons and remodel existing ones. The prison modernization scheme which led to the constitution of 125 new jails was discontinued in 2009. The government, when asked about its revival in the Lok Sabha, chose not to respond.
While government data reveals the alarming levels of overcrowding, it is still understated. The government needs to build more prisons and employ more staff to make their functioning more transparent and humane.
(Raja Bagga is Programme Officer with the Prison Reforms Access to Justice Programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)