Delhi’s Tihar Jail, India’s largest prison complex, has hit the headlines over the last few months for disturbing reasons.
Two murder convicts were found dead in their cell one morning. On another day, an inmate died after being reportedly slashed 16 times with improvised weapons as a warder tried to summon help. By one count, Tihar Jail has seen eight murders and seven suspected drug abuse deaths so far this year. Police have also unearthed extortion rackets run from behind the prison walls: procuring and using cell phones appears to be no problem though at least a part of the complex is covered by phone jammers.
At least 15 jail warders have been suspended in 2015. Although the statistics and headlines this year seem to be grimmer than before, the sprawling complex is no stranger to lawlessness. The administration has made some laudable efforts at improving the quality of life for the inmates – from meditation sessions to workshops that churn out furniture, clothes and snacks marketed under the TJ’S brand. But Vipassana and vocational training can help only to an extent.
The underlying problem in Indian prisons remains overcrowding. Tihar was built for 6,000 prisoners, but over twice that number are lodged there. Matters are made worse by an acute shortage of staff. When another jail in the capital, at Mandoli, is commissioned, it will ease the situation but the overall problem will remain. About 75 per cent of prisoners in Tihar Jail are undertrials. Many of them will eventually end up being acquitted by the courts. But in the meantime, for several years, they will continue to strain Tihar Jail as undertrials do across prisons in the country.
The remedies stare in the face – Justice A N Mulla committee on prison reforms recommended some as far back as in the early 1980s – but their implementation has proved tough. Existing provisions in the law, like bail and parole, need to be used liberally to decongest prisons. Petty crimes need to be disposed of quickly by the subordinate courts, and the legal aid system should ensure that the poor do not languish in jails just for their inability to pay surety or a minor fine.
Many more fast-track courts are needed, of course. But there is an even greater need for a judicial system that works faster. Some three crore cases are pending countrywide. India has just 15 judges per million population, compared to over 50 in many developed countries. Tihar Jail may need more warders right now to contain lawlessness within. But for a long-term fix, the country needs more judges.