Why you should care
Despite attempts at reform, a majority of those in Indian jails are still awaiting trial.
When Deepak Mishra, 36, talks about his time in prison, it is with anger and frustration. He was arrested in June 2013 on drug-related charges and spent four and a half years in Tihar Jail in Delhi, South Asia’s biggest prison complex. And that was before a conviction was handed down.
In fact, there has still been no conviction. Mishra was awarded bail in December 2017, but his case still hasn’t been decided, and those four-plus years — which he describes as narag, meaning “hell” — won’t count toward jail time if he’s found guilty and sentenced.
Mishra is not alone.
More than two-thirds of India’s prison population — 68 percent — are in pretrial detention and have not been convicted.
That’s according to the latest statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), from 2016. While India doesn’t have the highest percentage of pretrial detainees — that would be Libya with 90 percent (the country has fewer than 10,000 prisoners total) — it does have the second-highest raw number of pretrial inmates in the world, preceded only by the U.S., which has the largest prison population in the world by far. But America’s pretrial detainees make up just 20 percent of the incarcerated population.
Meanwhile, of India’s estimated 433,000 prisoners, more than 293,000 are awaiting trial, and the problem is getting worse: In 2014, fewer than 283,000 were in pretrial detention in Indian jails. And in some states, as much as 82 percent of the prison population is awaiting trial.
Ajay Verma, chairperson of India’s National Forum for Prison Reform in New Delhi, says efforts to address the problem have failed and that Indian jails suffer from overcrowding. In the 1,412 jails nationwide, according to the National Legal Services Authority’s 2018 data, the holding capacity is approximately 378,000 people. That capacity easily handles those who are convicted, but when people in pretrial detention are included, India’s prisons are nearing 115 percent capacity. In Delhi, it’s 227 percent.
Last year, India’s Supreme Court Committee on Prison Reforms ordered all director generals of state prisons to fast-track pretrial detainees and to set up review committees to meet monthly targets and submit progress reports. “We have yet to see how efficient these committees are,” Verma says. The Supreme Court has also asked the states to ensure overcrowding doesn’t lead to inhumane conditions for prisoners. NCRB data shows, for example, that 1,942 children are housed in India’s prisons with their detained mothers. This adds to the number of people taking up space behind bars and needing to be fed — making already tough conditions worse for everyone.
Between 2011 and 2016 — despite Supreme Court orders to fix the problem — the number of pretrial prisoners rose by nearly 5 percent. “In every other country, only those who have committed a heinous offense are taken to prison, and others are given bail. In India, everyone is sent to prison,” says Sunil Gupta, ex-legal adviser at Tihar Jail and a prison reform advocate who has worked with prison systems for almost 35 years. In March 2018, the Indian government rolled out measures aimed at mitigating the number of pretrial detentions, including free legal services for prisoners. But the sheer number of cases, says Gupta, means even well-meaning and well-formulated orders are struggling to make a dent.
One possible solution? Nearly a quarter of pretrial detainees in India have been incarcerated for more than a year. Gupta suggests that one way to address the issue would be to set a time limit within which cases must be adjudicated. “The rich are able to bribe their way,” he says. “It is the poor and marginalized who get trapped in the system.”
The biggest hurdle: Getting this type of solution on politicians’ radar. “The serious political will to change things for prisoners is almost zero,” Gupta says.