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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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India’s Hidden Prison Problem

The key problem is India’s criminal justice system. Over three crore cases are pending in various courts. The biggest victims are poor undertrial prisoners who don’t have money to pay bail

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

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As a young reporter with The Times of India, one of the first assignments I undertook was a visit to Arthur Road jail in central Mumbai.

Permission for the visit was sought and received quickly. The jail warden readily agreed to an interview. I told him I was keen to see the condition in which jail inmates lived in this large, sprawling prison in the middle of one of Mumbai’s busiest commercial and residential districts.

The first prisoner I encountered during a walkabout in the jail’s open grounds was a familiar figure: a tall, fair, light-eyed man who I couldn’t quite place. On speaking to him, he turned out to be the Parsi manager of our school rock band. I won’t name him here except to say he was in Arthur Road jail for a drugs-related offence.

In the decades since, Arthur Road jail has housed some well-known names: Chhota Rajan, Abu Salem and Ajmal Kasab. Gregory Roberts, author of the bestseller Shantaram, spent time here as well and wrote about his experience in his book. Part of Katherine Boo’s film, Behind The Beautiful Forevers, was shot in the prison.

Built in 1926, the jail has got more crowded by the day. Today it has over 2,000 prisoners. Its capacity is less than 900 inmates.

The key problem is India’s criminal justice system. Over three crore cases are pending in various courts, some several decades old. The biggest victims are poor undertrial prisoners who don’t have money to pay bail. Many have spent more time behind bars than if they had served the full sentence they would have received on conviction after a court trial. This is an injustice the Supreme Court must address urgently.

India has 1,382 central and district prisons. Their total capacity is 2,86,751 inmates. The total prison population is 3,64,081 – an average overcrowding rate of 28.60 per cent. But this statistic is misleading. Overcrowding is greater in some city jails where it rises to over 200 per cent.

Shockingly, 2,38,657 prisoners out of an all-India prisoner population of 3,64,081 (65 per cent of the total) are undertrials. This ratio reflects the reality of India’s slow and often corrupt justice system where the rich get preferential treatment and speedier trials. The poor suffer inordinate delays and deprivation.

The Supreme Court has finally woken up to the problem. A bench of Justices Madan B. Lokur and R K Agrawal passed this recent order: “A prisoner is required to be treated as a human being entitled to all the basic human rights, human dignity and human sympathy.”

The justices directed the Undertrial Review Committee to release on personal bond undertrial prisoners who have undergone half of the maximum sentence they would have received if they were convicted.

The Supreme Court justices added: “The committee should see that undertrial prisoners are released at the earliest and those who cannot furnish a bail bond due to their poverty are not subjected to incarceration only for that reason.”

It further directed the State Legal Services Authority to hire “competent lawyers” to provide free legal aid to the poorest prisoners.

This is a welcome order that will serve both justice and reduce endemic overcrowding in our prisons.


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Indian jails criminal justice system courts india