A punishing situation
While there may be numerous reasons for a person to land up in jail, as an institution, prisons host a significant number of people, most of whom are returned to society. It is thus imperative that prisons be considered as spaces that serve a purpose beyond punishment. The latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data reveal the extent to which prisons in India are serving beyond their capacity. Over-crowded and understaffed jails do little serve the purpose of the institution. The idea behind imprisonment revolves around the broader purposes of retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, seclusion, depending on the crime or offence committed by a person. Theories of punishment pertain to the intent of imprisonment and justify doing so in a certain context. But as the cold, hard reality of matters stand, in the overflowing Indian jails, most prisoners are under trial and barely literate—over 70 per cent have not even reached class 10. Under trails are those prisoners who are yet to be pronounced guilty by a court of law but are already made to share the space with guilty ones. NCRB's data suggest that the criminal justice system is more likely to incarcerate people from the marginalised sections of society, a very obvious proposition given that the mainstream affluent and influential can dodge punishment rather easily escape a jail term. Undertrial prisoners who are illiterate comprise 30.9 per cent of the total. This indicates that nearly one in every three of such inmates has not had any access to education. The situation is no different for convicted prisoners for whom data show that 70.8 per cent of convicts have not studied till Class 10, while the percentage of illiterate convicts stands at 28.5 per cent. This aspect also brings to highlight the link between lack of proper education and criminal tendencies, while also duly pointing to a possible solution to bringing down rates of common crimes. With respect to the myriad reasons for which one might end up in prison, Jammu and Kashmir is a glaring example where 8 per cent of all incarcerated people were in held under preventive detention—this is the highest among all states of India. As per the 2017 report on prison statistics released recently by NCRB, at the end of 2017, 68.5 per cent of the total prisoners in India were undertrials, 30.9 per cent were convicts, 0.5 per cent were detenues and 0.2 per cent were other inmates. This happens to be broadly similar to 2016 with the difference that the number of undertrial prisoners in 2017 rose by 0.8 per cent while those of convicts fell by 0.4 per cent. The highest percentage of undertrial prisoners was in Meghalaya at 88.4 per cent and the lowest was in Mizoram at 52.9 per cent among other states. The Union Territory to have the highest percentage of undertrial prisoners was in Dadra and Nagar Haveli (a whopping 100 per cent) while the lowest was in Andaman and Nicobar Islands at 48.3 per cent. It is rather worrying that over a quarter (25.1 per cent) of under trial prisoners had been behind bars for over a year and it is this factor that largely contributes to preventing jails from performing to their optimum capacity due to being filled beyond their capacity. On the national scale, the percentage of undertrials who spent over five years in prison is 1.6 per cent, with the exceptions of two states—Jammu and Kashmir (10.5 per cent) and Gujarat (8.2 per cent).
With respect to detenues, while the national average is a small figure of 0.5 per cent, Jammu and Kashmir is a glaring example with 8 per cent incarcerated people held as detenues. Preventive detention is when someone is placed in custody to prevent them from committing a crime or inciting something criminal in the foreseeable future, and not an alleged crime that has already taken place. Significantly, the data also suggests that the criminal justice system is more likely to incarcerate people from the marginalised sections of society. With the confirmed notion of over-crowded prisons in India, the nationwide occupancy rate in jails at the end of 2017 was 115.1 per cent. From 2014 to 2016, this figure had seen only a marginal dip from 117.4 per cent to 113.7 per cent. Individual states have dismal statistics and to make matters worse, the challenge persists with vacant posts in the jail administration. On an average, just about 68.8 per cent sanctioned posts were filled at the end of 2017 and Jharkhand fares the worst in this respect with only 33.5 per cent sanctioned posts filled in the state. Little wonder that the ratio of inmates per prison staff in the state is the worst by quite a distance. The state has 21 prisoners for every staff member, the second-worst state being Uttar Pradesh with 14 prisoners for every staff member. Considering matters in terms of how they ought to be, the notion of prison reforms have evolved to have a greater scope and apart from punishment centred on retribution, deterrence, and/or seclusion, incorporating the concept of well-being of prison inmates and in turn general well-being has come to become the cornerstone of the notion of rehabilitation as a purpose of imprisonment. But given the state of affairs, prison reforms for the sake of the inmates so that they return to society a little better people cannot happen unless there is some judicial reform that will ease the burden of Indian jails Strained jails are only a symptom of the bigger system not functioning to their ideal capacity.