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The Report has revealed that the pandemic affected prisons and their inmates in deleterious way. Prison administrations were strained by capacity deficits and inmates’ access to courts and health was impacted.

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The India Justice Report (IJR), which, since 2019, has been reporting on justice delivery in India, recently analysed prison statistics in India, 2020. It takes a closer look at prisons through the pandemic with a focus on overcrowding, vacancies and access to hospitals, among others.

It found that prison administration remains tremendously strained by severe capacity deficits. Inmates’ access to courts and health services was badly impacted. In the wake of the pandemic and ensuing national lockdown in March 2020, legal services and courts were not designated essential services.

The latest data in Prison Statistics India (PSI) 2020 shows a marked decrease in prisoners’ visits to court—down nearly a third from roughly 44.5 lakh to 15.5 lakh. Impacted too was inmates’ access to health services with the number of visits made by them for medical attendance declining from 4.77 lakh in 2019 to 3.63 lakh in 2020. Visits by medical personnel also reduced from 24,524 in 2019 to 20,871 in 2020. In 2019, 16,178 visits were made by judicial officers, which nearly halved to 9,257 in 2020.

Despite nine lakh more arrests in 2020, the transient number of people entering prisons fell from 19.02 lakh in 2019 to 16.31 lakh in 2020. Major arrests were seen in cases registered under “Other IPC Crimes” from 2,63,138 in 2019 to 1,377,216 in 2020, and under “Hurt Cases” from 6,10,956 in 2019 to 5,80,446 in 2020. In terms of absolute numbers, the prison population grew 1.5% from 4,81,387 in 2019 to 4,88,511 in 2020.

The most overcrowded prisons are in Uttar Pradesh with occupancy at 177%, Sikkim at 174%, and Uttarakhand at 169%. In seven states, occupancy increased during the pandemic year. Only six states have brought occupancy down to below 100%. Much of this overcrowding is accounted for by the presence of undertrials. Their share has increased from 69% in December 2019 to 76% in December 2020. In other words, for every one convicted prisoner, there are three people in custody awaiting “investigation, inquiry or trial”. This follows a long term trend. Five years ago, in 2016, undertrials accounted for 68% of the prison population.

Across the country, staff vacancies continue to plague the prison system, with an overall vacancy of 30.3%. These range from 28.8% in jail cadre staff to 40% in correctional staff. Despite the pandemic, the shortage of medical officers and staff continues and, in some states, their numbers have gone down. Nationally, vacancies among medical staff and officers are about 33%. Each state has its own sanctioned number of medical officers, however, the Model Prison Manual 2016 requires that there should be one medical officer for every 300 inmates.

Only nine states have reduced their medical officer vacancies from December 2019 to December 2020. Across states, only 35 additional medical officers were inducted in the first year (2020) of the pandemic, whereas the inmate population increased by 7,124. The total number of medical staff, including officers, increased by 270, taking it up to 2,232.

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There was a sharp fall in the number of prison staff that could be provided training. From an already low 21% who could be trained the year before, the share dropped to 10%. Except Delhi and Chandigarh, no state/UT could provide training to even 1/4th of its prison staff. Kerala, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh trained 1% of their staff.

In terms of gender diversity, nationally, women account for only 13.7% of staff across all levels, an improvement of just one percentage since 2019. Seen over five years, the share of women has grown at a slow pace. In 2016, nationally, there were 9.7% women staff in prisons. In absolute terms, Madhya Pradesh has the largest number of women (1,115) staff in prisons. As of December 2020, Karnataka has the highest share of women in prison staff, touching nearly 33%. Goa, on the other hand, has the lowest share of women staff at 2%, followed by Uttarakhand at 4%. Seventeen states/UTs have less than 10% of women in prison staff.

The average number of prisons equipped with a video conferencing facility rose from 60% to 69%. Thirteen states/UTs had 100% coverage across their prisons. In contrast, six states/UTs had less than half of their prisons equipped with this facility. Tamil Nadu, with 142 prisons, had only 10% or 14 jails with a V-C facility. None of Lakshadweep’s four prisons had this facility, the report found.

Nationally, prison budget utilisation reduced from 87.4% in December 2019 to 86.3% in December 2020. In 2020, a total budget of Rs 6,740.6 crore was provided to all states/UTs, of which Rs 5,814.4 cr was utilised. Six states/UTs fully utilised their prison budget. For 17 states/UTs, over five years, the increase in prison expenditure trailed the increase in total state expenditure. The national average per day spent on each inmate is Rs 113. Over five years, spend per inmate per day has increased from Rs 82 per day to Rs 113 per day. Nationally, the average spend per prisoner has gone down from Rs 43,062 in December 2019 to Rs 41,319 in December 2020.

Karnataka improved several parameters as occupancy reduced from 101% to 98%; spend per inmate rose to Rs 33,590, while budget utilisation rose to 96% from 76%; vacancies across cadre staff reduced from 30% to 24%; medical staff vacancies reduced from 73% to 67%, while medical officers’ vacancies came down from 78% to 74%.

Gujarat was able to reduce its officer level vacancy from 42% to 28% in 2020. Uttarakhand remains the state with the highest officer vacancy at 76%. This means nearly 8 out 10 posts are vacant.

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Bihar’s officer vacancy reduced nominally from 66% to 65%. At the level of cadre staff, Jharkhand has the highest vacancy at 63%, improving marginally from 64%. Sikkim and Uttar Pradesh have 56% and 55% vacancies, respectively, at cadre staff level. At officer level, Jharkhand’s vacancy increased from 65% to 67%. Punjab and Haryana showed the highest correctional staff vacancy, persisting over three years, at 100% In Bihar, prison occupancy rose to 113% in December 2020 from 94 % in December 2019. Similarly, Rajasthan, with only three improvements, saw increases in vacancies at all staff levels; with 1 in 3 medical officer posts vacant, and nearly 9 out of 10 sanctioned correctional officer positions unfilled.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has been supplementing the efforts and resources of the states from time to time by implementing the Scheme for Modernisation of State Police Forces (MPF Scheme) since 1969-70. The ministry assists in modernisation of the police force through new buildings, technology and better equipment. Nationally, the utilisation of this fund fell to 20.4% in 2020-21 from 97% in 2019-20.

According to Bureau of Police Research and Development’s Data on Police Organisations reports, in addition to modernisation grants from the central government, states also contribute to it. In 2019-20, the states’ total allocation towards modernisation reduced to Rs 769.06 crore from Rs 1,130.84 crore in 2018-19.

The legal aid system mandates that almost 80% of India’s over 1.25 billion population is eligible for free legal aid. Yet, till 2019, less than 15 million people have been provided legal services and advice by legal services institutions (LSI) established all across the country under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (the Act). The legal aid system in India was affected by a lack of optimal financial management and well-trained human resources, poor training of legal aid lawyers on their duties and responsibilities, inadequate performance monitoring and absence of mechanisms to gauge customer satisfaction. A bigger concern has been ensuring the quality of services provided which is directly linked to the training, documenting, reporting and monitoring of legal aid providers.

Also Read: All recovery notices against 274 anti-CAA protesters withdrawn: UP govt tells Supreme Court

Since 1993, the Department of Justice has been implementing a centrally sponsored scheme for the development of infrastructure facilities for the judiciary, with the aim of augmenting the resources of state governments.

According to data from the Bureau of Police Research and Development, as of January 2020, nationally there exist 530 forensic science laboratories (FSLs)/mobile forensic science vehicles. Of these, 32 are main laboratories, 80 are regional and the remaining 418 are mobile ones. The 2022-2023 budget has introduced modernisation of forensic capacity as a budget head and allocated Rs 300 crore for this purpose.

The India Justice Report sought to measure the technological capability and accessibility of police through the state police citizen portal—a SMART policing initiative of the Ministry of Home Affairs and an objective under the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems.

—By Shivam Sharma and India Legal Bureau

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