Jailhouse block: Why are Delhi’s prisons filling up again?

Overcrowded jails have always been a problem in Delhi, but due to a spree of prisons being operationalised over the past few years, occupancy in 2018 was the lowest in over a decade. But the prisons are filling up again, The Hindu takes a look at the reasons why

Last year, the Capital’s prisons were the least overcrowded they have ever been in over a decade — but things have started going south once again.

Delhi’s 16 prisons, including Asia’s largest prison complex — Tihar Central Jail, housed 15,168 inmates on January 1, 2018, as per data provided by Prison Headquarters, in reply to an Right to Information (RTI) request from The Hindu.

The combined sanctioned capacity of the jails is 10,026, which means that the prisons were at 151% occupancy.

Though far from ideal in terms of living conditions, 2018 saw the least congested jails in Delhi since 2008.

The analysis of prison statistics shows that Delhi’s prisons were the most congested on January 1, 2016, when they registered an occupancy of 227%.

At the time, the total combined sanctioned capacity of the jails was 6,250 — but 14,193 inmates were packed into the prisons.

In an attempt to solve the overcrowding, half-a-dozen new prison facilities were opened at north-east Delhi’s Mandoli within months of each other between October 2016 and October 2017.

The new facilities significantly eased the load on the prison infrastructure for an entire year – but not a day longer than that.

Factors ranging from operationalisation of more police stations to upcoming general election and even the weather have been cited as reasons for upward trend in prison occupancy.

As a result, on January 1, 2017, the prison occupancy dropped from 227% to 180% as the jails housed 14,061 inmates against a total capacity of 7,818.

‘Jail number 15’, categorised as a high-security jail, was opened in March 2017. In July, ‘Central Jail number 16’, the second women-only Jail in Delhi, was made operational. ‘Central Jail number 12’ was opened in September and ‘Central Jail number 11’ in October.

The declining trend in prison occupancy continued as the capacity was increased by 2,208 by the end of 2017. The prison occupancy in Delhi dipped to its lowest in 12 years: down from 180% to 151% — a drop of around 29%.

A total of 15,168 inmates were lodged in Delhi’s prisons, which had a total sanctioned capacity of 10,026, on January 1, 2018.

By the beginning of 2019, however, a host of factors, including better detection rates in instances of common crime, operationalisation of more police stations and, according to police sources, a special drive to investigate and close pending cases, triggered an upward trend in prison occupancy.

“More police stations means more police personnel, which means better enforcement of the law leading to more arrests and, as a result, more people entering the prison system,” said Neeraj Kumar, who has headed both the Delhi Police as Commissioner and also served as Director General, Prisons.

From midnight of January 1, 2019, 15 new police stations and a new police district became operational in the Capital bringing the number of territorial police stations in Delhi to 178 and the total number of police stations, including those under specialised units such as the crime branch, to 209.

A senior police officer said that the stations, apart from being able to “focus more sharply” on street crime, were also mandated with carrying out Delhi Police Commissioner Amulya Patnaik’s instructions to carry out a specialised drive to clear pending cases.

“With the general election coming up, there is added emphasis on keeping street crime and activities of small-time criminals, who may indulge in smuggling of liquor or black money to influence voters, at bay leading to more arrests,” said the officer.

According to the RTI, prison occupancy on January 1, 2019, went up by 3%, from 151% to 154%, as the number of inmates increased from 15,168 to 15,468.

Over the next 42 days — from January 1 to February 11, 2019 — the prison population increased by 5% as number of inmates went up to 15,930 inmates.

More police stations

“The creation of more police stations, which enhances law enforcement, is certainly a factor for more people landing in jail. Another factor is the weather, an increase in the number of inmates is usually noticed during the winter months,” said Raj Kumar, Additional Inspector General (Prisons).

“Disposal of criminal cases of inmates also takes place in the same proportion. In Delhi, a majority of undertrials remain in prison for one to three months at the most,” the AIG said, adding that efforts to create two more jails, in Narela and Baprola, were on track.

Decongestion through creation of new facilities, however, is just one solution to the problems confronting Delhi’s prison system. A more significant issue is the distribution of the existing jail population.

“The average ratio of undertrials to convicts in Indian jails is 65%:35%. But in Delhi prisons, it has always been 80%:20%, which proves that there is something wrong with the system,” said advocate Sunil Gupta.

“If undertrials are more, it indicates that the criminal justice system — from the police to the judiciary — is lethargic. The issue that accompanies the problem of more undertrials than convicts is that of uneven distribution of prison population, which the RTI reply clearly points out,” said Mr. Gupta, who now practices law at the Delhi High Court, after serving in the Legal Cell and as spokesperson of Delhi Prisons over a career spanning 32 years.

Distribution of inmates

According to the prison statistics, on February 11, 2019, there were a total of 15,930 inmates in Delhi’s 16 prisons, out of which 12,791 (80.3%) were undertrials and 3,057 (19.19%) were convicts. The RTI reply also posits that overpopulation was most acute at Tihar Jail compared to the new jail complex at Mandoli. For instance, ‘Jail number 1’ had 1,990 inmates against a capacity of 565; Jail numbers 3 and 4 had 2,065 and 2,574 inmates against capacities of 740 each.

On the other hand, ‘Jail number 11’ at Mandoli had 564 inmates against a capacity of 700, ‘Jail number 12’ had 925 inmates against a capacity of 980 and ‘Jail number 15’ housed 136 inmates against a capacity of 280.

“There is clear disproportionate distribution of inmates because most inmates prefer the Tihar campus, sprawling across 200 acres located in the city as opposed to the 68-acre Mandoli Jail campus or the 14-acre Rohini Jail,” Mr. Gupta said.

Former DG Prisons Neeraj Kumar said: “This situation is severely detrimental to the existing prison infrastructure. The monitoring of the prison population needs to be done on a regular basis to ensure that this problem does not arise.”

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