According to the latest ‘Prison in India’ 2019 report, prepared by the National Crime Records Bureau, Muslims, Dalits and tribals constitute more than 50.86% of the prisoners in Indian jails. The latest figures show that 118-119 people occupy the space meant for 100 in Indian prisons leading to overcrowding. Surprisingly, though the number of prisoners is rising, the prisons remain highly under-staffed - which is a major concern for the administration. Against a sanctioned strength of 87,599, the actual strength of staff is 60,787.
The report states that among the over 4.78 lakh prisoners, 1,44,125 are convicts while 3,30,487 are undertrials and 3,223 detainees. One of the main reasons for the rise in the occupancy rate can be attributed to the increase in the number of under-trials.
Reacting to the rising number of undertrial prisoners in the Indian prisons, advocate Subhasri Chatterjee told BE, “Indiscriminate arrests for petty offences, failure to procure bail, pendency of investigation and trial procedures in litigations, severe shortage of courts and judges and restricted access to legal aid schemes and inadequate capacity in jails can be cited as the major causes for overcrowding of under-trial prisoners in Indian prisons.”
According to a report published in India Today, 25-year-old Mohammad Ali Bhat who was a shawl trader from Kashmir in Kathmandu was taken to Delhi and accused in the Lajpat Nagar blast case in 1996 by the Delhi police. Later, he was taken to Rajasthan and named as an accused in the Samlethi blast case. The Rajasthan High Court declared Bhat to be ‘not guilty’ on July 22, 2019, but he had already lost the prime of his life in jail.
Alokananda Roy, renowned classical dancer who has been using traditional dance and music to change the lives of convicts, told BE, “Most of the time, people from deprived sections tend to follow the path of crime because of the lack of opportunities and also because there is a tendency of the society to look at these deprived sections in a different way.” The Crime Records Bureau data shows that more than two-thirds of the prisoners are either illiterate or have not crossed the secondary level of education. It further stated that Dalits accounted for 21.17% or 1.01 lakh prisoners, both convicts and under-trials, while Muslims accounted for 18.26% or 87,421 prisoners. Tribals accounted for 63,028 or 13.61% of total prisoners.
Roy also pointed out that the main problem with the under-trials is that they do not get the facilities of the convicts though they live in the same place. She said, “The convicts get paid for their labour but in case of the under-trials, even food and clothes have to be provided by their families and if they are far away, it is not always possible for the families to provide these things. As a result, a lot of corruption can take place inside the prisons.” Roy feels that to keep the under-trials and the convicts together in the same place is not a very healthy practice because of the discrimination.
In the Indian judicial system, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The Indian Constitution also states that the state should provide equality of status and opportunities to all of its citizens enabling them to live with dignity in our society. However, the aforesaid objective cannot be fulfilled without securing socio-economic justice to the under-trial prisoners who are in jail for years together.
Many feel that at present, jails are over-flooded with under-trial prisoners who are not getting justice due to lack of their financial resources and social backwardness for which they cannot afford lawyers. Reacting on how to solve the problem of the under-trials, Chatterjee stated, “It is the first and foremost duty of the state to provide proper and fair trials for curbing the number of under-trial prisoners for which the justice delivery system in our judiciary need to be speedier, accessible and affordable to all.”