COVID-19: India’s Overcrowded Prisons Once Again Under the Spotlight

by Ruchir Joshi and Esha Joshi

On 16th March 2020, the Indian Supreme Court (“SC”) took suo moto cognizance of a “high risk of transmission of Covid-19 to prison inmates”, and issued notices to the States and Union Territories, directing them to submit written replies, containing particulars of the steps being taken, so as to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The court observed that overcrowding of prisons, results in the violation of social distancing norms, and thus, poses a great threat during the ongoing pandemic. In the furtherance of which, on 23rd March, it was proposed that parole or interim bail may be granted to prisoners convicted of, or charged with offences involving a prison term of seven years or less.

Overcrowding: Not really a new challenge

It is not the first time, that the court has taken the matter of overcrowding into cognizance, in 1966, the SC in Rama Murthy vs State of Karnataka, identified up to nine issues that needed to be addressed in regards to the prison system. Of these, overcrowding was at the forefront. This problem is not new and has been affecting Indian prisons for long. As early as the late 1950’s, it was observed by the All India Jail Manual Committee that “overcrowding in prisons has assumed the proportions of a major problem for the correctional administration.”

Since then there has been a steady increase in the overcrowding of jails. The size of the prison population throughout India is growing, placing an enormous financial burden on governments. It has been found that the prison population in India has taken a considerable jump from 2000 to the present day.

In the year 2000, the total number of prisoners which included the sentenced and the pre-trial detainees were 272,079, this increased to 466,084 in the year 2018, which has made India the fifth largest prison population in the world. Moreover, Indian prisons are severely stretched, with the current number of prisoners going 17.6% beyond the sanctioned strength.

Even though the courts have expressed their concerns repeatedly, no concrete steps have been taken yet. The National Human Rights Commission in its Annual Report stated that the primary reason for overcrowding, is the increased number of under-trial prisoners and the extended periods of time for which they are confined. The National Crime Record Bureau’s data shows that 69.42% of the total prisoners consist of undertrials. As, noted by the SC in Hussainara Khatoon’s case, this prevalence of undertrials can be attributed to the sluggish pace of trials, which is a crying shame on the judicial system.

Overcrowding: Violation of Human Rights

The ramifications of overcrowding are multifarious as it creates problems in the management of prisons and this results in deleterious effects on the health of prisoners. In 2018, again the SC emphasised the need for immediate action and asked all the High Courts to take up the matter suo moto as the issue involves a violation of Human Rights. By taking a strong exception to overcrowding, the SC said: “prisoners also have human rights and they cannot be kept in jail like animals.”

Overcrowding in prisons poses a serious health hazard because of the inhumane living conditions, poor nutrition and lack of sanitation. Overcrowding has led to India’s non-compliance with UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The Rule 20, lays down the minimum quality requirements of food, which is blatantly violated by India, as the resources available are not in proportion to the overcrowded prisoners. Apart from the food quality being worse, most of the prisons in India have acute shortage of latrines and urinals due to overcrowding, in contravention of Rule 12, thus posing a serious threat to the health of the prisoners.

As, suggested by many reports there is a big gap which exists between the written policy and the actual practices in India. The report by UK Home Office on Prison Conditions in India states that most of the Indian jails fail to meet the minimum United Nations standards for such facilities. Even, the US Report on Human Rights practices, suggests that the Prison Conditions in India were frequently life threatening due to the above-mentioned problems. Thus, such overcrowded prisons results in the prisoners being riddled with various diseases and vulnerable immune systems.

Covid-19: Vulnerable Prison System in India

In the light of Covid-19, this has made prisoners more susceptible to contraction and thus made containment of the virus harder. The greater susceptibility of prisoners to this virus, due to the pathetic living conditions they are subjected to, poses a serious threat to their life. This is further aggravated by a poor prison health system in which there is lack of officers and supervision. It has been found that in prisons there are only 1,914 medical staff against the sanctioned strength of 3,220. Seeing the overcrowding rate, automatically the need for medical staff is higher, but the ground situation is different.

Hence, overcrowding, by causing unreasonable burden on the already inadequate resources,  not only violates the prisoner’s right to live in a clean and healthy environment but also the basic fundamental right to live with dignity guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Moreover, in these pandemic situations, by putting prisoner’s life at risk, it further hampers their right to life.

The measures regarding the release and parole of prisoners announced by the SC, in light of the pandemic can only be considered as temporary. These measures have to be viewed sceptically for various reasons. Firstly, in the cover of administrative inefficiency, responsibility is being shifted onto law-abiding citizens and an unnecessary burden is being imposed on them. Secondly, there being no certainty as to how long it will take to contain this virus, the measures taken by the government seem short sighted. Lastly, prisons in their current state will always remain vulnerable to such a situation. It is therefore contended that, it is the need of the hour to modify the prison system and to provide a concrete solution to this problem.

Ruchir Joshi & Esha Joshi  B.A.LL.B.(Hons.) students at National Law University, Nagpur.

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