Prison overcrowding in 2019 highest in 10 years

Indian prisons have been housing more inmates than their capacity for decades now and this problem of overcrowded prisons is only getting worse, according to a report on prison statistics for 2019 released by the National Crime Records Bureau earlier this week. As on 31 December, 2019, there were 4,78,600 inmates lodged in different prisons in India while they had a collective capacity to house only about 4,03,700 inmates. This means the number of prisoners was 118.5% of the prison capacity, the highest since 2010.

While this is only one percentage point more than the number in 2018, a state-wise analysis shows that the number of states and union territories reporting overcrowded prisons has increased from 18 in 2018 to 21 in 2019. Eleven states have reported overcrowded prisons for five consecutive years.

Prisons in Delhi were the most overcrowded among all states and union territories – there were about 17,500 prisoners lodged in jails with a collective capacity of about 10,000, which is a prison overcrowding rate of 175%. Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand followed next in overcrowding at 168% and 159% respectively.

Overcrowded prisons are more of a concern at present as the Covid-19 infection continues to spread in the country with about 3.5 million confirmed cases reported by August 30. The infection has been reported to have spread in multiple prison premises as well. This is a matter of concern also because nearly every eighth prisoner in India is a person above the age of 50, the age group which is at a higher risk of developing severe complications and dying due to the Covid-19 infection.

“It’s stupid but it’s not surprising,” said Neha Singhal of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy regarding the overcrowded prisons. “Prisons are grossly overcrowded and they urgently need to be de-congested. Prisons are often difficult to manage as it is, but the current circumstances will make management an absolute nightmare,” she said.

Singhal said maintaining social distancing norms is impossible in an overcrowded prison. “There’s no way for them to be physically far from each other because there’s just not enough space. I have spoken to a lot of prisoners and they barely have any space when they are sleeping and are forced to share mattresses,” she said.

Prisoners are also at a high risk of getting infected with an infection because of continued movement of prisoners in and out of prison premises and the fact that prisoners getting admitted and released is a continuous process. In 2019, an average of over 12,000 inmates visited courts everyday while around 1,300 were moved out of prisons everyday for medical attendance. In 2019, an average of 4,100 undertrials and 11 convicts were released from prisons every day while around 5,200 people were admitted to prisons every day.

These numbers would be lower this year because of various steps taken by prison authorities to prevent outbreak of the disease inside prisons. It is possible to release a section of prisoners, especially those who are undergoing trial, on bail or parole. In 2019, 69% of all prisoners were undertrials. This figure has increased slightly in the last four years.

“Prisons by design are not roomy spaces and when they are crowded the space for each prisoner becomes even less,” said Leah Verghese, research manager at civil society group Daksh. Verghese said she was surprised that many states did not make concerted effort to decongest prisons. “Releasing undertrials, those who are accused of less serious offences and those above the age of 60 seemed like an obvious solution to the overcrowding problem,” she said.

“Every time an undertrial is admitted there is a risk that they will infect other inmates and staff,” said Verghese. “Undertrials and convicts share the same space thus putting everyone’s health at risk.”

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