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Undertrials up from 69 to 76%, prisoners’ access to courts, hospitals fell 65%, 24%

By Our Representative

Access of prisoners to courts fell by 65%, and to hospitals by 24%, according to the Prison Statistics India (PSI) 2020, the latest official statistics on the state of India’s prisons and their inmates, published in December 2021, an analysis of the PSI data by The India Justice Report (IJR), released recently, has said.
Brought out by a collective of organisations -- Centre for Social Justice, Common Cause, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, DAKSH, TISS–Prayas, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and How India Lives, and supported by Tata Trusts, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and the Tree of Life Foundation, IJR, which, since 2019, has been reporting on justice delivery in India, said, prisoners’ visits to courts came down nearly a third, from about 44.5 lakhs in 2019 to 15.5 lakhs in 2020.
Impacted too was inmates’ access to health services, with the number of visits, made by prisoners for medical attendance, declining from 4.77 lakh in 2019 to 3.63 lakh visits in 2020, said the report, adding, visits by medical personnel to prisons also reduced from 24,524 in 2019 to 20,871 in 2020, while visits by judicial officers nearly halved to 9,257 in 2020 from 16,178 in 2019.
Maja Daruwala, Chief Editor, IJR, said, “The status of essential capacities decides the efficacy of the pillars of the justice system to deliver to the standards they have set for themselves.” She added, “The PSI 2020 presents a grim picture of the state of prisons through the pandemic. Despite the many efforts to decongest these institutions, and minimise the risks of contagion inherent in these overcrowded places, their overall condition has not improved.”

Overcrowding

About 9 lakh more arrests were made in 2020, and, taken at December 2020 in terms of absolute numbers, the prison population grew 1.5% from 481,387 to 488,511 inmates, the report said, adding, the annual increase is particularly worrying; given that 2020 was a Covid year when a slew of decongestion efforts were being implemented across the nation. However, the total number of people entering and leaving prisons in the course of the year fell from 19.02 lakhs in 2019 to 16.31 lakh in 2020.
The report said, as of December 2020, nationally, overcrowding stood at 18%, a marginal reduction of 2 percentage points from the previous year. This figure is the national average across 1,306 prisons. In nine (Jharkhand, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Meghalaya, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Uttar Pradesh) states overcrowding rates are more than the national average.
Much of this overcrowding is accounted for by the presence of ‘undertrials’, it said. Their share has increased from 69% in December 2019 to 76% in December 2020; showing that for every 1 convicted prisoner, there are 3 people in custody awaiting ‘investigation, inquiry or trial’.
According to the report, this follows a long-term trend. Five years ago, in 2016, undertrials accounted for 68% of the prison population. As with all preceding years, a majority of prisoners come from amongst the poor and illiterate. Besides chronic overcrowding, other long term comorbidities in the prison system have persisted and indeed worsened.

1 in 3 staff positions vacant

The report noted, across the country and despite this period traversing a pandemic, the shortage of medical officers and staff continues; and, in some states, their numbers have, in fact, gone down. Nationally, vacancies among medical staff and officers stand at about 33%, which means 1 in every 3 posts has not been filled.
There were 797 medical officers in the country’s prisons to serve nearly 489,000 inmates, it said. On average, this means each medical officer was looking after 613 inmates. However, the Model Prison Manual 2016 requires there to be 1 medical officer for every 300 inmates.
The sanctioned strength in 17 states (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland) does not meet this criterion. Only 9 states (Bihar, Uttarakhand, Tripura, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Manipur, Haryana) have managed to reduce their medical officer vacancies.
Then, it said, from January to December 2020, total deaths went from 1764 in the previous year to 1887. The deaths remain categorised as ‘natural’ ‘unnatural’ and ‘cause not known’, and deaths related to Covid have not been disaggregated.

Video-conferencing facilities

The average number of prisons equipped with a video conferencing facility rose from 60% in 2019 to 69% in 2020. Thirteen states/UTs (Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi, Assam, Puducherry, Ladakh, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Haryana, DnH & Daman Diu, Uttarakhand, Goa) had 100% coverage across their prisons.
In contrast, 6 states/UTs (Tamil Nadu, A&N Islands, Nagaland, West Bengal, Manipur, Rajasthan) had less than half of their prisons equipped with this facility. Tamil Nadu, with 142 prisons, had only 10% or 14 jails with a V-C facility. None of Lakshadweep’s 4 prisons had this facility available.

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