By Shubham Pandey*
The utilization rate of Indian prisons stands at a whopping 170%, with a few states having more than twice the number of prisoners deemed appropriate for their prison facilities. The overcrowding of prisons can be attributed not just to the lack of prisons but also to the inefficiency of the trial process, with many of the prisoners not even receiving a single trial. In fact, about 70% of the prisoners in India are undertrial prisoners.
With the onset of the pandemic, this overcrowding became a huge concern, and to curb the rapid spread of Covid-19, reducing the number of prisoners was a necessity. As a result, the HPC was formed, with the task of giving temporary parole to selective prisoners. This saw a drastic decline in the occupancy of prisoners in a short interval of time. The question that this raised was – Can this solution be extrapolated to a non-pandemic scenario as well? If temporary parole is indeed a solution and it is possible to select prisoners suitable enough for the same, then can this be used to keep the prison occupancy at appropriate levels in India?
However, it is not as straightforward as it seems. The primary concern with the process, is its inherent efficiency. About 65% of the prisoners released on temporary parole were found absconding, even with supervision by the concerned authorities. Even after most of them being first-time offenders with less than 7 years of prison sentence, this statistic points towards systemic failures at multiple levels.
Interaction with Kavita Srivastava
To have a better grounding in this issue, we had an interaction with Ms. Kavita Srivastava from PUCL, who has been fighting for the rights of prisoners for more than a decade now. She pointed out fundamental flaws in not just the system but also the perceptions of prisons in India. Prisoners are supposed to be perceived as correction centres. Associating the idea of a detention centre with a prison, is what is primarily driving the system towards inefficiency. She hinted at an infinite potential for change in the existing scenario, and cited parole as just a temporary relief, not a solution.
According to Ms. Srivastava, the prisons in Rajasthan still operate on outdated manuals, wherein basic necessities of prisoners like food and clothing have also not been updated. Even undertrial prisons are subjected to inhuman treatment, with the unfortunate example of Stan Swamy who died in prison after not being given even a straw to drink water. She also enlightened us about the effect of enhancing the quality of prisons, citing the example of an open prison in Rajasthan for prisoners having a history of good behaviour. Even after being allowed to live in secluded homes and go out to look for work, there have been just 2 cases of absconding in the past 10 years.
This clearly indicates that a behavioural change can be propelled with systemic changes, especially in the quality of treatment of prisoners. With 96% criminals being first time offenders, bringing about this change is not a very far-fetched thought.
In light of the aforementioned predicament, there is a need to supplement the increase in the number and capacity of prison facilities with an improvement in the treatment of prisoners. It is high time we see prisons as correction centres over detention centres, and foster a nurturing atmosphere over a stigmatising one.
Only then can the system of parole and appointment of HPCs turn out to be fruitful. At present, like the HPC, another committee needs to be appointed to look into expansion of prisons and enhancement of their quality. Alongside, the manuals in current prisons need to be updated to give the prisoners an environment which even they can perceive as corrective in nature.
*PGP2, IIM Ahmedabad. Based on interaction with Kavita Srivastava