Decongesting Indian Prisons: A Dire Need Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

The recently released Prisons Statistics of India (PSI) 2020 gives a glimpse of how successful the prison decongestion and medical safeguards have been. The Prison Statistics India 2016, published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The 2020 report does not contain any Covid-19 specific data. Between December 2019 and December 2020, prison occupancy reduced marginally from 120% to 118%. The pandemic year (2020) witnessed nearly 900,000 more arrests than in 2019. In absolute numbers, in December 2020, there were 7,124 more people in jail than in December 2019. The increase in the share of under-trials in prisons was at an all-time high. PSI 2020 puts the percentage at 76% in December 2020: An increase from the earlier 69% in December 2019. The people who are undertrials are those yet to be found guilty of the crimes they have been accused of.

State-wise Scenario of PSI 2020

  • In 17 states, on an average, prison populations rose by 23% from 2019 to 2021, as opposed to 2-4% in previous years. The appalling figures come from states such as Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, and Uttarakhand, which had tragic occupancy rates of 177%, 174%, and 169%, respectively (December 2020).
  • Only Kerala (110% to 83%), Punjab (103% to 78%), Haryana (106% to 95%) Karnataka (101% to 98%), Arunachal Pradesh (106% to 76%) and Mizoram (106% to 65%) could reduce their occupancy of prisons below 100%.

Video-Conferencing Facility for Trials

  • Video-conferencing(VC) promised some relief from court closures.currently, 69% of prisons have VC facilities, as opposed to 60% in 2019. However, the facility is not evenly distributed across the country. Tamil Nadu, Manipur, West Bengal, Nagaland, A&N Islands, Rajasthan and Lakshadweep still have VC facilities in less than 50% of their jails.
  • Tamil Nadu, which has more than 14,000 prisoners, has VC facilities in only 14 of its 142 jails. Uttarakhand, which has VC facilities in all its jails, continues to increase under-trial numbers and has an occupancy rate of 169%. It is important to keep in mind that the VC facilities only accomplish the necessity of law that a prisoner must be produced before a magistrate every two weeks. Fulfilling this technicality does nothing for decongestion or effectuating speedy justice.

Availability of Medical Staff in Prisons

  • There remains a huge shortage of medical staff (resident medical officers/medical officers, pharmacists, and lab technicians/attendants), leading to delays in attending to the needs of inmates. Goa has the highest vacancy (84.6%) of medical staff, followed by Karnataka (67.1%), Ladakh (66.7%), Jharkhand (59.2%), Uttarakhand (57.6%) and Haryana (50.5%).
  • While Goa has only two medical staff for over 500 inmates, Karnataka has 26 for 14,308 prisoners. With a vacancy of 90%, Uttarakhand has only one medical officer for 5,969 inmates. Jharkhand’s vacancy levels are at 77.1%. In 15 states, the number of available medical staff was reduced in 2019-20; whereas the inmate population increased by nearly 10,000. Shortages in medical officer vacancies average around 34% nationally. Mizoram is reported to have no medical officer. Only Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya meet the WHO recommended ratio of one medical officer for every 100 prisoners.
  • The above statistics paint a grim picture of the state of Indian prisons. The need to decongest prisons is more critical now than ever before, with the threat of a second wave of COVID-19 looming large. The judiciary, along with the government, needs to take immediate steps to address the issue of overcrowding and lack of medical facilities in prisons.
  • Measures such as bail for non-violent offenders, use of video conferencing for trials, and increasing the number of medical staff in prisons must be implemented urgently. The right to life and health of prisoners must be protected at all costs. It is time for the justice system to take a step forward and ensure that the prisoners are not subjected to inhumane conditions.

Synopsis

The Prisons Statistics of India 2020 highlights the need for urgent decongestion of prisons and protection of the rights and health of prisoners. The high occupancy rate of prisons, delays in trials, and lack of medical facilities in prisons are issues that need immediate attention from the government and the judiciary. The potential waves of COVID-19 make it even more imperative that steps are taken to decongest prisons and protect the right to life and health of prisoners.

Written by IAS POINT

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