New Delhi: A human rights group on Tuesday said one prisoner dies every 5.5 hours in Indian jails and that there are three times more mentally ill and 61 per cent more women prisoners in the country compared with the figures 15 years ago.
More than 60 per cent of the inmates lodged in Indian jails are awaiting trial, a number less than only 17 countries in the world, Commonwealth Human Rights Intiative (CHRI) said here.
The group released two of its 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.
The reports also said that the Muslims and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes are always over-represented in the prison population, up to two-thirds of the total, and that 70 per cent of the prisoners are either illiterates or under-matriculates.
Citing the latest National Crime Records Bureau report, the CHRI said India’s 1,401 jails held 419,623 prisoners as against their total capacity of 366,781.
The organisation said its analysis revealed that some state prisons housed twice the number of prisoners they could hold, and the number going up to 500 per cent occupancy rate.
The reports were released by Wajahat Habibullah, a former Chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities, followed by a discussion between representatives of the civil society and State Human Rights Commissions (SHRC).
Habibullah, pointing to the dire consequences of unreformed Indian prisons, said many minors arrested during outbreaks of violence in Jammu and Kashmir a decade ago had now emerged as leaders of the ongoing violence in the valley.
He said it was a probable outcome of their incarceration with “hardened criminals”, instead of being lodged in juvenile detention homes as should have happened as per the law.
Professor Shamim Modi from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, spoke about her experience as an undertrial prisoner in Madhya Pradesh during her activist days in that state.
“In prison, you have to accept the fact that you are not human. They put you in (prison) to set you right,” Modi said. When she complained of rats biting her toes at night, she said, she was told not to expect hotel comforts in jail.
Shailesh Gandhi, former Information Commissioner at the Central Information Commission, pointed out to non-clearance of the huge backlog of pending cases, which, he said, added to the misery of undertrials, who are kept confined without trial.
“The elephant in the room is the judiciary whose accountability is never mentioned,” Gandhi said.
The CHRI said data from 26 states and Union Territories was gathered and analysed for the reports.
One of the states missing from the report was Madhya Pradesh, against which Modi had a few sharp words to say.
“I know Madhya Pradesh won’t be there in the report. They blatantly tell you ‘we are not going to give you any data. Do whatever you can’,” she said.
John Dayal, a civil rights activist, raised doubts about the role of SHRCs and State Minorities Commissions vis-a-vis proper prison guidelines, calling them of “dubious character”.
“(Indian) Prison is a very porous institution. There are criminals with access to latest phones, but a majority of prisoners, Dalits and other poor, are left wanting for most basic amenities. And then there are Maoists, 95 per cent of whom are innocent. We need to work for them and against a political will which does not want things to change,” he said.