Suicide is a major cause of the 817 unnatural deaths reported in jails across the country between 2017 and 2021, the Supreme Court Committee on Prison Reforms has told the apex court while emphasising the need for building suicide resistant barracks.
The apex court-appointed committee, headed by former top court judge Justice (retd) Amitava Roy, has said that out of the 817 unnatural deaths, 660 were suicides with Uttar Pradesh recording the highest number of suicides at 101 during this period.
"There is a need to identify potential hanging and anchoring points within the existing designs of prison infrastructure and to build suicide resistant cells/barracks with the use of collapsible material to replace the former," the committee has said in the final synopsis of reports submitted in the apex court.
The final synopsis of reports dated December 27, 2022 contains nine chapters, including on unnatural deaths in prisons, death row convicts and violence in Indian jails.
In September 2018, the top court had constituted a three-member committee headed by Justice (retd) Roy to look at issues involving jail reforms and make recommendations on several aspects, including overcrowding in prisons.
In the chapter titled "unnatural deaths in prisons", the committee has said torture in custody or custodial death flouts the basic rights of citizens and is an "affront to human dignity".
It said the report is based on data provided within the Prison Statistics India (PSI) report from 2017 to 2021, published by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB).
"The committee analysed PSI data pertaining to deaths (natural & unnatural) in India's prisons and observed that the number of custodial deaths has seen a steady rise since 2019, and 2021 has recorded the highest number of deaths so far, suicide (80 per cent) being the major cause of unnatural deaths," the report said.
It said in five years starting from 2017 to 2021, there were 462 deaths on account of old age and 7,736 prisoners died due to illness.
"Out of a total number of 817 unnatural deaths in India's prisons between 2017-2021, there were 660 suicides and 41 murders in the prisons across India during last five years from 2017 to 2021," it said.
The committee said 46 deaths were related to accidental deaths during this period whereas seven prisoners each died due to assault by outside elements and negligence or excess by jail personnel respectively.
"Uttar Pradesh has recorded highest number of suicides (101) in the country during the last five years i.e., from year 2017 to 2021 followed by the states of Punjab and West Bengal where 63 and 60 prisoners committed suicide respectively. Amongst Union Territories, Delhi recorded the highest 40 suicides during the last five years from 2017- 2021," it said.
The committee has recommended that as far as possible, production of senior citizens and sick prisoners in courts should be done through video-conferencing medium.
"Suicide is a major cause of unnatural deaths among prisoners. The jail staff must be trained to recognise warning signs and must devise appropriate mechanisms to safeguard life in prisons," it said.
The committee said the jail staff should be regularly provided the requisite training to recognise "signs of depression and aberrant behaviour", which may include suicidal intent and should mandatorily provide psychological first aid to prisoners as per their requirements.
It said a consistent and well researched model of suicide treatment should be developed and implemented in the prisons across the country.
The committee said every prison must have a "suicide prevention program" starting from identification to medical treatment so that any such possibility can be thwarted.
"When an inmate at risk is identified by staff, or co-inmates, such identified inmate must be referred to the mental health unit for immediate evaluation and necessary intervention," it said.
It said prison administration should take immediate and effective measures to prevent violence among prisoners.
"In order to reduce violence in prisons, it is recommended that there should be segregation in prisons amongst first time offenders and repeat offenders, in jails, hospitals and during their transit to courts and other places," the committee said.
"Prison administration should strive to comprehensively implement national and state health insurance schemes such as the Ayushman Bharat scheme, Chiranjeevi Health Insurance Scheme and similar state health insurance schemes in prisons," it said.
In a slew of recommendations, it further suggested the need for a robust grievance redressal mechanism for the prisoners for registering their complaints.
The apex court is seized of a matter related to conditions prevailing in 1,382 prisons across India.
The matter is scheduled to be taken up for hearing on September 26.