National Human Rights Commission has begun to scrutinise Delhi’s Tihar Jail following a series in this paper exposing lawlessness within the prison. Separately, Supreme Court is hearing a writ petition on appalling state of our prisons. The interest shown by these institutions provides an opportunity to decisively reform India’s prison system, an area which has long faced neglect. The state of prisons are a measure of how civilised we are as a society and our record, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired.
For a country faced with so many daunting challenges, prison reform in India is a relatively easier one to overcome. India doesn’t have to deal with the problem of mass incarceration. For instance, about 33 of every 1 lakh of population in India are in prison. US, in comparison, imprisons about 693 people. India’s challenge, therefore, is not about large numbers imprisoned. The composition of prisoners is where our problems lie and should be the locus of immediate prison reforms. About 67% of India’s prisoners are undertrials, in jail without yet being convicted. In comparison, 20% of US prisoners are undertrials. The consequence in India is overcrowded, unhygienic prisons and a preponderance of young people charged with petty offences at the mercy of hardened criminals.
Court orders and existing laws should be enough to make a significant difference in an attempt to lower the incidence of undertrials. Bail is the first line of defence here. In the past, courts have ruled that bail is to be seen as a rule and not an exception. If this principle laid down by courts is to be followed, state governments have to demand more accountability of police. When undertrials languish in jail as there are not enough police personnel around to escort them to court, the problem surely lies in the realm of government. Simultaneously, the standard of legal aid service needs to be enhanced. Evidence shows that undertrials slip through the cracks and spend long years in prison as lawyers assigned to them don’t show up.
Prison reforms need to be a part of larger reforms which improve our criminal justice system. A lot, however, can be done quickly by enforcing existing laws and improving accountability of the support system. These should be areas where state governments can act quickly even as other institutions come up with durable solutions to improve the state of India’s prisons.