Need and ways of Decongesting Indian prisons

Synopsis: Health Experts are calling federal prisons a “breeding grounds for uncontrolled transmission” of the virus. There is an urgent need of decongesting them. What are the ways to decongest Indian prisons?


  • In India there are around 1,400 prisons, ‘housing’ over 5 lakh prisoners. These prisoners are facing the threat of Covid pandemic, with no organisational support.
  • Whereas, in the countries such as U.K and U.S, activists are strong enough to influence public policy and voice against human rights abuse in prison.
  • Also, these Countries have accurate data over the impact of pandemic on prisoners in public domain. For example
    • The data from Texas state shows that the pandemic has killed more than 230 people in prisons, 80% of whom had not been convicted of a crime.
    • Similarly, The United Kingdom Ministry of Justice figures shows that prisoners testing positive in October stood at 1,529, with five deaths.
  • However, India lacks such crucial data on Prison Statistics in public domain and also such statistics are not being demanded of our criminal justice system.

How a lack of effective criminal laws is affecting under-trial prisoners in India?

According to the Prisons Act of 1894, prisons come under the exclusive responsibility of State governments. Over the years, despite being upgraded to the status of correctional homes, these prisons are facing the challenge of Congestion of Under Trial Prisoners (UTPs).

  • According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s report for 2019 out of 4.5 lakh prisoners, 3.3 lakh are ‘under-trial prisoners’, i.e., investigation or trial is supposed to be ‘in progress’.
  • These UTPs are detained under Section 167 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) which provides for “Procedure when investigation cannot be completed in 24 hours”.
  • The original Cr.PC of 1898 specified the period of detention as 15 days. Later, through amendments, it was extended to periods that can go up to 90 days and, in some exceptions, to an indefinite period.
  • Out of 3.3 lakh, about 2.2 lakh are either not likely to be even charge-sheeted, or they are likely to be acquitted.”
  • This is a huge violation of the basic human rights of UTPs, who are already facing the issue of inadequate healthcare facilities and torture by other rowdy prisoners.
  • Moreover, it is a huge injustice to the families of the UTPs. For example, their children are denied a normal childhood, proper education, and are exploited by a cruel section of the society and are forced to take to the path of crime.

What needs to be done?

Pandemic provides an opportunity for an immediate review of all prisoners’ vulnerability to the epidemic,

  • First, we need to conduct repeated testing in all prisons, especially sub-jails. An arrangement for the isolation and hospitalization of who testing positive needs to be planned.
  • Second, to de-congest prisons, the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, 2005, which contains the much-needed Section 436-A needs to be activated.
    • it provides for an under-trial to be released on a personal bond, with or without sureties if the under-trial has spent half of the period of prescribed imprisonment in detention.
  • Third, ‘Prisons’ is purely a ‘State subject’. But it is imperative of the centre to support the states as the Constitutional responsibility of handling infectious and contagious diseases listed in the Concurrent List.

It is the duty of the state to vaccinate inmates at the ‘Hospitals of Correction’. It is similar to anyone in a state hospital may rightly expect to be vaccinated on a priority against the virus.

Read more about prison reforms

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