Bengaluru: By December 2022, India’s prisons were filled to 131% of capacity, up one percentage point from 2021, according to latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). This is despite a campaign in July last year to identify undertrial prisoners eligible for release, and the country adding 11 prisons since 2021.

Overall, there were 573,220 prisoners in India, according to the 2022 Prison Statistics India (PSI) report, an annual dataset released by the NCRB since 1995. The majority of inmates--more than three in four--are under trial, reflecting a continuing trend since the previous years. Three in four prisoners in India's jails were under trial in 2020, which was the highest share of undertrial detainees in prison since at least 1995, IndiaSpend reported in February 2022.

Similarly, a majority of the undertrials belong to oppressed caste groups including the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC). IndiaSpend had reported on the high proportion of undertrials from SC, ST and OBC communities in September 2020.

Further, 119 prisoners died by suicide in 2022, at a rate of 20.8 prisoners per 100,000 prisoners. This is 67% more than India’s suicide rate of 12.4 per 100,000 population.

Prison occupancy high despite undertrial release campaign

The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) ran a campaign in July 2022 to identify undertrial prisoners eligible for release. Nearly 25,000 undertrial prisoners were released on bail, according to NALSA’s 2022 report. The campaign is estimated to have resulted in the decrease in prison population by nearly 5% and undertrials by 6%, resulting in a reduction of prison occupancy by 6%. Further, India added 11 prisons, increasing the country’s prison capacity by 10,657.

Yet, in absolute numbers, India’s prisons had 19,186 more prisoners by the end of 2022, compared with 2021. Since 2011, the prison population increased each year. In 2021, Indian prisons saw the highest increase in prisoners at 13.4%.

A majority of prisoners--75.8% in 2022--are under trial, the data show. Since 2005, this share has been at least two in three prisoners each year. Indiscriminate arrests and a broken bail system are factors leading to congestion in prisons, IndiaSpend reported in August 2022.

A high undertrial ratio is indicative of the poor functioning of the criminal justice system, according to an analysis of prison statistics from 2021 by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). It not only overburdens the prison administration but also leads to inhuman conditions in prisons due to chronic overcrowding, the analysis had said.

The number of undertrials released in 2022 is similar to the number in 2019, but higher than 2021, said Madhurima Dhanuka, head of the prison reforms programme at CHRI. “This could be due to various reasons including campaigns by NALSA, courts being more liberal in granting bail, and the post-Covid reduction in courts backlog.”

Caste and religion of undertrials

Two in three undertrial prisoners belong to the oppressed caste groups of SC, ST and OBC communities. This share has remained over 60% over 25 years since 1998, our analysis of government data shows.

Custodial populations hold a mirror to the social inequalities and discrimination that exists in society and the socio-economic processes push certain communities to the margins, Vijay Raghavan, professor, Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and project director of Prayas, a field action project working on criminal justice, had told IndiaSpend.

In 2022, about a fifth (21%) of the undertrials in 2022 were SCs, 9% were STs and 35% were OBCs. For context, 17% of India’s population are SCs and 9% are STs.

Further, 65.2% undertrials in 2022 were Hindu--2.6 percentage points less than the previous year--and 19.3% were Muslim, up 1.3 percentage points, the data show. Muslims account for 14.2% of India’s population, according to government data. Over a decade, more than one in six undertrials were Muslim, higher than the Muslim population share in India.

Suicide in prisons

Across India’s prisons, 119 prisoners died by suicide in 2022, which was 21% lower than 2021, the data show. Overall, there were 1,995 deaths in prisons in 2022, of which 8% were unnatural. Suicides formed three-fourths of the unnatural deaths, down from 81% in 2021.

The suicide rate in prisons, as we said, was 20.8 per 100,000 prisoners in 2022--67% more than the all-India rate of 12.4 suicides per 100,000 population. In a decade since 2013, the suicide rate in prisons was highest in 2020 (31.9).

India reported its highest suicide rate at 12.4 per 100,000 population in 2022, according to Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India. Experts told IndiaSpend that this might be a reflection of better reporting of deaths by suicide rather than an actual increase in the numbers.

The pandemic led to severe curbs on the rights of prisoners, particularly their communication with families and lawyers, access to courts, access to medical care, access to rehabilitation and vocational facilities, etc. These pandemic restrictions caused restrictions on communication with families, access to courts and healthcare, and rehabilitation which “exacerbated vulnerabilities of prisoners”, said the 2022 CHRI analysis.

In 2022, India had 25 psychiatrists/psychologists in prisons, just over a third of the sanctioned strength. This was less than the 33 psychiatrists/psychologists in 2021.

Tamil Nadu was reported to have 10 psychiatrists/psychologists while Delhi and Karnataka reported four each. Overall, 25 states and Union territories did not have a sanctioned post for a psychiatrist or psychologist, and 29 did not have one in place.

In June 2023, the National Human Rights Commission issued an advisory to states to focus on 11 areas which included filling up the vacancies and augmenting the staff strength and training prison staff and prisoners.

(Nileena Suresh, data journalist at IndiaSpend, contributed to this story.)

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