A prisoner dies every five and a half hours which highlights the neglect, violence and personal tragedy behind prison walls in India. This stark reality and grim story was revealed in two unique reports on the state of prison monitoring in India released here at a national consultation on Tuesday by former bureaucrat and chairman of National Minorities Commission Wajahat Habibullah.
Pointing to the dire consequences of unreformed prisons, Habibullah said that many Kashmiri minors who had been arrested during an earlier outbreak of violence in Jammu and Kashmir a decade back had emerged as some of the leaders of the current unrest in the valley. He said that this was a probable outcome of minors being held with ‘hardened criminals’ instead of juvenile detention homes as should have happened under law. Habibullah had recently visited Kashmir along with a delegation to assess the situation where mass uprising is going on since July this year.
The reports, ‘Looking into the Haze: A Study on Prison Monitoring in India’, and ‘Circle of Justice: A National Report on Under Trial Review Committees on Prison Monitoring’ were launched by Habibullah who is also at the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).
He said these two unique reports on the state of prison monitoring in India prepared by the CHIR underline how a lack of review has led to alarming conditions in jails – with a huge under trial population a majority of who are poor. The reports were bolstered by an impassioned indictment of the system by a senior academic who herself had been imprisoned.
Professor Shamim Modi from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai spoke movingly about her own ordeal as an undertrial when she was an activist in Madhya Pradesh.
“In prison you have to accept the fact that you are not human. They put you in to set you right,” said Prof Modi. When she complained of rats biting her toes at night she was told not to expect hotel comforts. She went on to speak about health check-ups conducted in public view to humiliate inmates.
Shailesh Gandhi, the former information commissioner, pointed out that senior prison officials were often appointed with a lack of transparency. The 20 percent vacancy rate in Indian courts has led to a backlog of cases and resulted in severe overcrowding in prisons, he said. “The elephant in the room is the judiciary whose accountability is never mentioned,” he added. Gandhi went on to call for an audit of the judiciary.
Other speakers at the event included Harsh Mander, Director, Centre for Equity Studies, Maja Daruwala, Senior Advisor at CHRI and Aman Hingorani the Senior Advocate on Record at the Supreme Court.
The participants included representatives of state human rights commissions and civil society organizations from around the country.
The Director General of Tihar Prison, Sudhir Yadav, also attended the event.
Participants called for the need of transparency in the penal system. For instance Prof Modi said an effective monitoring of prisons would solve many of the problems by independent, informed and sensitive monitors.
A recent report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on the state of prisons in India also underlines the dysfunctional state of the country’s jails. Year after year, dry statistical tables, which barely make it to the media, paint a grim picture of official neglect and personal tragedy in our 1401 prisons.
The NCRB’s most recent figures found India’s 1401 jails held 419,623 prisoners when the countrywide capacity was 366,781. CHRI’s analysis of state-by-state numbers is even more alarming; some state prisons house twice as many prisoners as they can hold.
The figures reveal that seven in ten prisoners in the country were either illiterate or educated only up to high school and nearly 70% of the Indian prison population had not yet been proved guilty.
It further revealed that across the nation there was just one guard for every ten prisoners, one medical staff for every 225 prisoners and one correctional staff for every 702 prisoners