Hundreds of undertrials languish in overcrowded south Chhattisgarh prisons even as their trial proceeds sluggishly, says an RTI reply

With most information regarding prisons closely guarded in the country, in conflict zones — some north-eastern States, Kashmir or Chhattisgarh — it is even more so. The only information about prisons that percolates to public space is about how inmates are becoming master painters, singers or dance drama designers. While those endeavours are to be lauded, the standard of life in smaller prisons, which are not located in the national capital or megacities but in districts and sub-divisions, rarely gets attention.

In this scenario, the role of prison reforms committees becomes important in highlighting issues of prisons in smaller states and districts, but more often than not, their recommendations never see light of day. For example, the All India Committee on Prison Reform (1980-83) produced one comprehensive study cum recommendation on how to improve quality of life in Indian prisons. Two main focuses of the report were to address overcrowding and speedy trial. However, nothing happened. Several other committees were also formed at the regional level in the last 30 years by various state governments to initiate prison reforms and speedy trial albeit without any substantial result. The relatively new State of Chhattisgarh has never instituted any formal study of its prisons. It is also yet to implement recommendations of the Prison Reform Committee.

A 2009 study by National Human Rights Commission shows that Chhattisgarh prisons accommodate three times more than their capacity. However, a prison wise break up of inmates is not available.

Recently, an RTI filed by activist Swami Agnivesh has revealed that while there is space for 844 inmates, the three prisons of Kanker, Jagdalpur and Dantewada (all in south Chhattisgarh) cumulatively accommodate 1067 inmates who are undertrials and are referred to as “alleged Maoists” or “Maoist supporters”, according to the RTI reply. “We only have figures of those arrested as alleged Maoists. If the sum total of general undertrials and the convicts are added to this category, then the prisons are three times more crowded,” Swami Agnivesh told The Hindu.

The number of “alleged Maoists” or “Maoist supporters” in Kanker prison is 144 whereas it has space only for 65. Similarly, while Dantewada prison can accommodate 150, it actually has 377 undertrials as inmates. Jagdalpur prison has lesser number of alleged Maoists undertrials compared to the available space for the inmates. It can house 629 inmates but has 546 alleged Maoist undertrials. “Please add total number of prison inmates to the alleged Maoist undertrials and you will have more than three times overcrowding in Dantewada as well,” Swami Agnivesh added.

The RTI has also revealed that out of these 1067 undertrials, 1018 are tribals. Swami Agnivesh said that in majority cases, the tribals could not appoint a lawyer or even manage to find out about the case details and that “confines them in prison for ages”. “There are several people in prison for more than five years as undertrials. Their cases are not moving at all. This is atrocious,” he added.

The RTI record shows nine tribals are languishing in Jagdalpur prison for more than five years, whereas details regarding ‘inmate’s number of years in prison’ have not been disclosed by the authorities of Dantewada and Kanker.

Jagdalpur prison authorities were more forthright in disseminating information like the number of women arrested as alleged Maoist sympathisers or the number of arrests under special security act Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The number of women inmates in Jagdalpur is 53 and 128 undertrials are detained under UAPA, the RTI reply said. Besides, Jagdalpur prison authorities also shared that eight undertrials have not appeared in court “for the last one year”. While the Kanker authorities have disclosed that there are six women in prison custody as undertrials, other information regarding number of inmates detained under UAPA or inmate’s cumulative years in prison are not disclosed by either Kanker or Dantewada authorities.

Swami Agnivesh claimed that in the entire Maoist belt of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa, thousands of tribals are languishing in prisons as undertrials. He demanded appointment of fast track courts for speedy disposal of these cases, adequate compensation for the innocents and punishment of officials who framed the tribals.

The State’s Tribal Affairs Minister Kedar Kashyap could not be reached on phone for comments.

A few years after the launch of the now-illegal anti-Maoist movement Salwa Judum, both the opposition Congress and the CPI started claiming that their members are indiscriminately arrested in south Chhattisgarh as alleged Maoists. However, some of the BJP old hands have also been put behind bars for allegedly associating with the rebels. The CPI is now planning a campaign to pressurise the government to release the political activists. A recent judgement of the Bombay High Court that says “mere membership of a banned organization will not incriminate a person unless he resorts to violence” has also acted as a shot in the arm of the activists.