Reforming India’s Prisons


In recent years, there has been a spurt in the number of complaints regarding the poor condition of prisons in India. These complaints have helped in bringing a very important issue of prison reforms, which was hitherto neglected, to the centre-stage. Subsequently, various organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International etc have also taken up the task of recording and documenting the conditions of our prisons. One such report which came out a few days back was by Abhishek Angad, a correspondent of the daily ‘The Indian Express’, where he looked at the inner workings of Tihar Jail which holds the distinction of being the largest prison complex in South Asia. The report makes shocking revelations which are further explored in this article.

In legal domain, a prison is a building designated by law, or used by the sheriff, for the confinement, or detention of those who are judicially ordered to be kept in custody. But in cases of necessity, the sheriff may make his own house, or any other place, a prison. The basic idea is to curtail the liberty of a person, who has broken the law, with the ultimate objective of making the ‘culprit’ realize his/her mistake with a hope that ultimately he or she will undergo a process of change. However, this is a utopian dream which is very rarely realized, especially in India, where prisons, instead of working for the betterment of the imprisoned, further deteriorate the condition of a ‘convict’.

Abhishek Angad highlights in his report that Tihar jail, which has the sanctioned strength of around six thousand inmates, houses around fourteen thousand prisoners presently. Thus, the foremost problem in almost all Indian jails is that of over-crowding. What makes it worse is the fact that out of these around 76% are under-trials, that is those whose guilt is yet to be proven. Due to over-crowding these people who should ideally be kept away from the hard-lined criminals are made to share prison cells with them. This lack of segregation profoundly impacts their psyche, invariably in negative manner. Thus, a lawyer in Delhi High Court once remarked , “You may not be a criminal when you land inside Tihar, but you surely becomes one the day you come out”.

Further there exist other fundamental problems like, inhuman treatment by officials, infighting among inmates at times even leading to the death of some prisoners, lack of basic amenities such as toilets, medical apathy and even sexual harassment. In 2012, in response to a writ petition filed in the Delhi High Court, an inquiry committee was constituted whose report indicated that at least 10% of the 500 CCTV cameras in jail remained non functional at any given point. If this is the condition of the most high tech jail of the country, it is beyond imagination what must be the situation in some remote areas. In the report it is also claimed that tobacco and even drugs are also sold within the jail complex. As one inmate allegedly remarks, the cost of one packet of “Khaini” costs Rs. 6000 inside Tihar (whose cost outside is around Rs. 10).

Thus, there is ample evidence that suggests that vested interests are present in the prison system.

Looking forward

An interesting experiment was started by Kiran Bedi in the 1990s during her stint as the IG of Tihar Jail, whereby she introduced a system of anonymous feedback boxes as a measure of grievance redressal. Grievances by inmates were collected and analysed on a daily basis, which were directly taken cognisance of by the IG. This was indeed a novel experiment which could be emulated elsewhere.

Similarly, Norway provides an ideal model of prison administration.

Also, Tihar has implemented certain measures like organizing sports events for prisoners, famously referred to as ‘Tihar Olympic’. A cultural event called Ethnic Tihar is also organized. Computer training centers and a library has also been set up. These are measures which must be promoted.

The basic idea behind the institution of a prison is to reform a person and not just to punish them. The famous Gandhian philosophy, wherein each individual is viewed as a moral agent capable of asserting her inherent goodness, can be a source of inspiration for ushering in further reforms– the aim of prisons should be to awaken this moral agent.

-Contributed by Kunwar Suryansh

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