Another American Gift to Humanity


India boasts some of the worst and overcrowded prisons in the world. AFP/Getty Images
India boasts some of the worst and overcrowded prisons in the world. AFP/Getty Images

India needs to pay urgent attention to prison reforms in order to turn prisoners into assets, rather than liabilities


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e tend to fleetingly think of prisons and prisoners only when high profile detentions like Sanjay Dutt or Tarun Tejpal are reported in media. But soon after, our attention is diverted to other “more important” issues in life. However, those who have their friends and loved ones behind bars (both undertrials and convicts) must be eating, sleeping and breathing prisons 24×7.

Both crimes and criminals have inhabited the earth since time immemorial. But a quick look on history tells us that the current imprisonment system is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1786, the US state of Pennsylvania passed a law mandating all convicts, not sentenced to death, to be placed in penal servitude to do public works projects such as building roads, forts, and mines.

Frequent scenes of disorderly conduct by the convict work crews triggered sympathetic feelings from the citizens who witnessed the mistreatment of convicts. Reformers suggested that prisoners be sent to secluded “houses of repentance”.

In 1790, Pennsylvania put this theory into practice, and turned its old jail at Walnut Street in Philadelphia into a state prison. This prison was modeled on what became known as the “Pennsylvania system” or “separate system”.

It placed all prisoners into solitary cells with nothing other than religious literature, and forced them to be completely silent to reflect on their wrongs. Like many unique gifts to humanity, the US thus gave modern imprisonment system to the world. Americans constitute 5% of the global population but the US has a 25% share of global prisoners at present!

The first state prison in England was the Millbank Prison, established in 1816. When the Brits ruled subcontinent for over 2 centuries, they brought the modern detention system to India.

In India, the management and administration of prisons falls exclusively in the domain of the State Governments, and is governed by the Prisons Act, 1894 and the Prison Manuals of the respective State Governments. Thus, states have the primary role, responsibility and authority to change the current prison laws, rules and regulations. Day-to-day administration of prisoners rests on principles incorporated in the Prisons Act of 1894, the Prisoners Act of 1900, and the Transfer of Prisoners Act of 1950.

Prison inmates lodged in Indian jails are categorised as Convicts, Undertrials and Detenues. A convict is “a person found guilty of a crime and sentenced by a court” or “a person serving a sentence in prison”. An undertrial is a person who is currently on trial in a court of law. A detenu is any person held in custody.

The percentage share of Convicts, Undertrials and Detenues inmates was reported as 33.2%, 66.2% & 0.6% respectively at the end of 2012. So for every 1 prisoner, there are 2 undertrials in India. The highest number of the undertrial prisoners was in the age group of 30-50 years at all India level. 34.1% of thetotal undertrials were in the age group of18-30 while 48.6% inthe age group of 30-50 years.

According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), as of 31 December 2012 (2013 statistics will be published by mid 2014), there were 1382 functioning jails in India having a total capacity to house 3,43,169 prisoners. But these prisons are currently holding approximately 3,85,135 prisoners. This means that prisons are, on an average, operating at 112% of their capacity. “One thing that comes out strikingly on the basis of available data is that the jails are over-crowded,” admits NCRB Report.

However, the NCRB Report does not admit the inhuman conditions under which inmates are kept in our prisons. But it is explicable. Because for them, prisoners are mere statistics! Torture, rapes and custodial deaths are rampant. Greed, corruption and general apathy results in widespread frustration among inmates.

Studies have suggested prison conditions – including the behavior of prison staff – are causing high level of psychotic disorders and augmenting (rather than curbing) criminal behavior. On the other hand, for well-connected and cash-rich prisoners (mainly jailed for looting nation’s wealth), everything from mobile phones to booze is available at the right price inside their prison cells.

All states and Union Territories in India had a combined sanctioned budget of US$530 million in 2012-13 for prison related expenditure. But only a fraction of this amount is spent on correctional activities (education and vocational training).

Major expenditure includes for meeting day-to-day expenses and running establishments like payment of salaries, wages, rent, etc. and may also include activities for development of existing infrastructure and bringing about improvements in the prisons. Expenditure on prison inmates is categorized as Food, Clothing, Medical, Vocational/Educational facilities, Welfare and Other expenses. Food expenses account for more than half the total expenditure on prison inmates.

The Supreme Court of India, in its judgments on various aspects of prison administration, has laid down 3 broad principles regarding imprisonment and custody:

(a)  a person in prison does not become a non-person.

(b) a person in prison is entitled to all human rights within the limitations of imprisonment.

(c)  there is no justification for aggravating the suffering already inherent in the process of incarceration.

The “social value” of imprisonment or lack of it is being recognized worldwide. “The economics of imprisonment, the ebbing of crime rates, the horror stories of overcrowded penitentiaries and the persistent activism of reform advocates had begun to generate a public consensus that merely caging people is not a crime-fighting strategy,” wrote Bill Keller in a recent New York Times piece. He advocates “to invest in alternative ways of protecting the public –– drug treatment, more intensive parole and probation programs, job training and so on.”

In India, as everywhere else, time is ripe for a fresh approach to reform prisoners with a view to converting them into national assets from national liabilities. Probably, an immediate baby-step in that direction will be decongestion of our prisons.

This can be followed by a complete overhaul of our prisons management system – including training and orientation of its entire staff. For an approximately two trillion dollar economy this is not a tough ask, provided we agree with our Supreme Court that “a person in prison does not become a non-person”!

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.

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