Time to decongest our prisons

The overcrowding of prisons in the country is a long-standing problem that is seldom addressed effectively. Even though the Supreme Court has, from time to time, raised the issue of prison reforms in general, and that of overcrowding in particular, measures to decongest jails have been sporadic and half-hearted. The issue is once again in the news, with the Supreme Court bemoaning that prisons in Delhi and nine States have an >occupancy rate of 150 per cent of their capacity . The average occupancy in all jails in the country was 117.4 per cent, as of December 31, 2014. What makes the picture bleaker is that there is little change even though the court has passed a series of interim orders to the States on measures to decongest prisons. In particular, the court had on February 5 and May 6 this year spelt out steps that the authorities should take to reduce prison occupancy. Cramped conditions in prison militate against the prisoner’s right to good health and dignity. Further, as pointed out by the amicus curiae in this case, an excessive prison population creates problems of hygiene, sanitation, management and discipline. Of equal concern are the available staff strength and the level of training they receive.

It is unedifying to note that not one State or Union Territory has bothered to prepare a plan of action, as directed by the court five months ago, to reduce crowding and to augment infrastructure so that more space is available to each prisoner. The court received some information about proposals for constructing additional jails, but has found that these are only ad hoc proposals, with no indication of either a time frame or the resources provided for building these facilities. The court’s sense of disquiet is understandable, as many States seem to ignore the obvious mismatch between the extent to which they keep the law and order machinery active and the space and resources provided for those jailed under such action. Last year, it was found that a little over two-thirds of India’s prisoners were undertrials. Poverty remains the main reason for this, as most prisoners are unable to execute bail bonds or provide sureties. Since 2014, there is some effort to invoke Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure, under which >undertrials who have completed half of the maximum jail term specified for their offences may be released on personal bonds. But much more needs to be done. Failing to address the problem of crowded jails may prove costly for the administration of criminal justice.

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 3:14:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/Time-to-decongest-our-prisons/article16071311.ece

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