~ Divisha Agarwal
Prison:- Any place used permanently or temporarily under the general or special orders of a State government for the detention of prisoners, under Section 417 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and includes all land and buildings thereto, but does not include:
(a) Any place for the confinement of prisoners who are exclusively in the custody of the police,
(b) Any place specially appointed by the State government under Section 541 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1882 (10 of 1882).
In simpler words, a prison is a building in which people are legally held as a punishment for a crime they have committed or while awaiting trial. You must be thinking that why are we suddenly talking about prisons and prisoners, but why not?
A little research into this reveals that the Indian prisons are suffering from three structural constraints: overcrowding, understaffing and sub-human living conditions mainly because of underfunding.
According to the latest statistics, there are a total of 1,401 jails in India; with a capacity of 3,66,781 prisoners. But what we need to concentrate on is the number of inmates, currently residing in the prison which is 4,19,623; around 50,000 more than the actual capacity. This diverts our focus to the condition of these overcrowded prisons and to the reason as to why are they even overcrowded! More than two-thirds i.e. around 67% of the inmates are undertrials. Nearly 43% of the undertrial population accounting for roughly 1.22 lakh undertrials remains detained for more than six months to more than five years by the end of 2014. Many prisoners have spent more years than the actual term they would have served had they been convicted, in the prison. Many of them are poor people who are accused of minor offences and locked away for long periods because they were not aware of their rights and cannot access legal aid. Lack of financial resources and a robust support system, and the limited ability to communicate with lawyers from within the jail premises hamper their ability to defend themselves in the court of law. The All India Committee on Jail Reforms said that, “Such offenders need no incarceration from the reformative point of view. However, in spite of various provisions in law, such as probation, for diversion of such offenders from institutional treatment in the open community they continue to be sent to prison in large numbers.”
As the capital of the nation, Delhi has the most over-crowded jails and also suffers from acute shortage of prison guards and senior supervisory staff. As the adequate prison staff is not present, overcrowding of prisons has led to rampant violence and other criminal activities inside the jails.
Also, mental health is flagged as a serious and under-researched issue in prisons, with many facing violence and humiliation from fellow inmates.
According to fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian constitution, accused or undertrials are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But they are often subjected to psychological and physical torture during detention and exposed to subhuman living conditions and prison violence. Moreover, prison time attaches a social stigma to them as individuals and as community members. Even their families, relatives and communities are not immune to disgrace and humiliation. Even after their acquittal, undertrials find their employability severely jeopardized for none of their faults.
India is the world’s largest democracy and not just for namesake. It has free elections, a multi-party parliamentary system, a diverse and outspoken free press, an independent judiciary and the country abounds with non-governmental organizations that take pride in their independence and that help to make up a lively civil society. Yet if the checks and balances of democracy are supposed to curb government lawlessness, something has gone wrong in India. Often, anyone, who is unlucky enough to be arrested, faces a greater likelihood of torture, or worse, at the hands of the Indian police than in many countries that are entirely lacking in the protection for civil liberties which are available in India.
About the author- Divisha is a 2nd year law student at Gujarat National Law University