Nearly eight out of every 10 prisoners in Indian jails are awaiting trial even as the occupancy rate rose from 118 percent to 130 percent in 2021, according to the latest prison statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
However, access of prisoners to courts and to hospitals is returning to the pre-COVID levels, an analysis of the data by the India Justice Report (IJR), a collective that has been covering justice delivery in India since 2019, has found.
Prisoners’ visits to courts went from 15.5 lakh in 2020 to 20.9 lakh in 2021 while their access to health services, represented by the number of medical visits, rose from 3.6 lakh visits in 2020 to 4.4 lakh, the analysis showed.
Prisons Overcrowded Despite Decongestion Efforts
The number of arrests in India grew from 1.39 crore in 2020 to 1.47 crore in 2021 – an increase of 7.7 lakh. Parallelly, the number of inmates in Indian prisons grew 13 percent from about 4,88,000 to 5,54,000 within the span of a year. The number of people entering and leaving prisons also increased by 10.8 percent in 2021.
This is where the numbers stand, even as state governments were making efforts to limit arrests and reduce congestion in prisons due to an alarming increase in COVID cases. Indian jails, which were already overcrowded, became even more congested as occupancy rose from 118 percent to 130 percent.
As of December 2021, 19 out of the 36 states and union territories had overcrowding. Uttarakhand was the most overcrowded, with 185 percent occupancy, while Rajasthan was the least, with 100.2 percent occupancy.
Who Is in Our Prisons?
IJR's analysis found that 77 percent of prisoners in India in 2021, about 4.3 lakh people, were awaiting trial. While this is a marginal increase from the 76 percent in 2020, the number has nearly doubled compared to 2010, when there were only 2.4 lakh undertrial prisoners.
In most states and UTs, undertrials made up more than 60 percent of the population. In Delhi however, 90 percent of the prison population was undertrial. Nationally, over 24,000 undertrials have languished in prison for three to five years while about 11,500 have been confined for over five years.
Most prison inmates come from a poor background. 25.2 percent are illiterate and there is a disproportionate number of Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis among the inmates, according to the analysis.
Staff Vacancies Show Slight Decline
The average vacancy levels across all the prison staff saw a marginal decrease from 30.3 percent in December 2020 to 28 percent in December 2021. However, half the states and UTs had about 25 percent of their staff positions lying vacant by the end of 2021.
Sikkim with 52.3 percent vacancy, Jharkhand with 59.3 percent vacancy, and Ladakh with 83.1 percent vacancy were the worst offenders. Bihar, on the other hand, showed significant improvement, going from 66.1 percent vacancies in 2019 to 25.8 percent in 2021. Delhi and Chandigarh also did well in this regard.
However, things look much grimmer when it comes to the medical staff, which includes doctors, lab technicians, pharmacists, and compounders. Here, vacancies increased from 32.7 percent in 2020 to 40.5 percent in 2021. Goa (84.6 percent), West Bengal (66.8 percent), and Karnataka (61.3 percent) have fared the worst in this regard.
This coupled with an increase in prison occupancy means doctors are stretched thinner than ever. The Model Prison Manual requires one doctor for every 300 prisoners. However, on average, a doctor served 842 prisoners in 2021.
Vacancies in correctional staff – probation or welfare officers, psychologists, and social workers who focus on the prisoners’ mental health – reduced slightly from 40 percent in 2020 to 36.3 percent in 2021.
11 states and UTs, with a total of 18,887 inmates across 153 jails, have no posts sanctioned for correctional staff, the IJR analysis found.
“Given the intention of governments to move strongly in the direction of rehabilitation, there will have to be much greater investment in infrastructure, human resources, and their training as well as to developing prison industry and skill building and the problem of overcrowding has to be sorted as a priority,” Maja Daruwala, Chief Editor of the India Justice Report, said.