Indian prisons at a glance

Prisons in no country are a thing to showcase. It is the proverbial underbelly of the society which holds within itself all sorts of deviations that aren’t supposed to be a part of the visible spectrum of society. Lately, in India there has been some noises made about prison reforms. Before this, Indians have only known their very popular police officer from the elite Indian Police Services, Kiran Bedi, talk of conditions in prison and the need to approach correction differently. Those talks started and stopped with the popular Tihar Jail. Beyond this, prisons in India have been away from the Indian attention, except when a celebrity or a high profile politician is jail in one of the many central jails.

I found it remarkable that the general public knew very little about the prisons, the prisoners and what goes on inside them. This was the starting point of a three month study on prisons in India where I completed a sort of crash course from knowing about prison administration to the ideas of criminal justice system. This was a fascinating journey which is now in a shape that I can share and hope that some may find it interesting enough to explore further.

My colleague Praveena and I analyzed the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for prisons and crime to unpack the common refrain of “prison reforms” in India.

Here are some preliminary numbers –

At 25 persons per 100,000 population, India has one of the lowest imprisonment rates in the world. This is worth noting for two reasons – one, that very few people actually go to the prison in India. Conversely, it also implies that conviction rate is low. Second, that this often misleads into an impression that crime rate in India is low. As we investigate later we find that low imprisonment is a consequence of limited policing capacity and correctional infrastructure than crime rate.

Rate of Imprisonment in India (Data Source: UN Global Report on Crime and Justice 1999).
Rate of Imprisonment in India (Data Source: UN Global Report on Crime and Justice 1999).

The following table lists stats are from the annual report – Prison Statistics, India (2012) of the NCRB. The most striking figure is the percentage of pre-trial prisoners as of 2007. Of the total number of people in prisons over 66% are not convicted. They are those whose cases are still under trial. So the actual number of convicts is just about 30% of the number of prisoners!

Prison population 3,76,396
Capacity 277, 304
As on (31.12.2007)
Pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners 66.60%
Female prisoners 4.10%

From the same report, as on 2012, the number of prisons of all types are listed in the table –

Central jails 127
District jails 340
Sub jails 806
Women jails 20
Open jails 46
Borstal schools 21
Special jails 31
Other jails 3

The occupancy rate of the Indian prisons is at an un-threatening and seemingly normal figure of 112%.

As we go further exploring the numbers and attempt to contrast it with the social patterns that the Indian society reflects, we find that knowing prison administration is essential to make sense of why does the police operate the way they do and where the trouble lies in the system. So, the following schematics illustrate prison administration in India.

Prison Administration in India (Credit: Authors)
Prison Administration in India (Credit: Authors)

Every state has a hierarchy of jails – Central Jail, District Jail, Sub –Jail, Women’s Jail, Borstals and Open Jails. Together these are administered by prison department which is staffed by state police personnel and specially trained correctional staff. Figure 2 illustrates this arrangement. The purpose of this schematic is to know various kinds types of skilled personnel that are required to run a correctional facility. The consequences of not having such skilled staff is leading to issues like poor quality living, violation of basic human rights and disease burden (including mental health) in the prisons.

In the next post, we analyze NCRB’s prison and crime data.


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