The prisons in West Bengal are grappling with a crisis of unprecedented proportions as overcrowding reaches alarming levels. According to a recent report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the jails have housed inmates 1.3 times their capacity.
The Prison Statistics in India-2022 report states that the jails in West Bengal have a total capacity of 19,556 males and 1,920 females. However, as of December 21, 2021, the state has housed 26,994 males and 1,778 females, and 17 transgenders.
The report released a few days ago also stated that as many as 6,928 inmates were found lodged in sub-jails against the capacity of 3,818 inmates.
The surge in prisoner numbers has raised concerns about the living conditions and rehabilitation opportunities within the state’s prisons.
Speaking to India Today, Bengal’s Minister for Correctional Administration, Akhil Giri acknowledged the overcrowding in state jails but said only “some prisons” are overpopulated.
He said, “Yes, there are a few correctional facilities with more inmates than their total capacity”. However, he claimed that the NCRB report “is not entirely true”.
When asked how the state is working towards solving the overcrowding in jails, Minister Giri said, “We cannot release criminals onto the streets because jails are crowded. We have tabled a proposition to increase the number of correctional homes to redistribute and rehabilitate prisoners more equitably and reduce overcrowding.’
The NCRB data also highlighted that there are no separate arrangements for transgender individuals in West Bengal jails. However, Giri refuted it, saying that there are separate facilities within the existing prison premises to accommodate transgender individuals.
The overcrowded environment not only compromises the safety and well-being of the inmates but also hampers the efforts to facilitate effective rehabilitation and reduce recidivism, critics argue.
“Overcrowding in prisons often leads to increasing instances of prison torture, which also acts as a barrier to the rehabilitation of prisoners. Further, an increased number of deaths in prisons due to ill-health, lack of proper food, mental discrepancies, unhygienic environments, and many more are also issues that need immediate address,” said Randita Paul, a lawyer at the Calcutta High Court.
He added, “A universally accepted rule that ‘you pay for what you pollute’ is directly applicable to the inmates who landed in jail. Any convict cannot be laid out into the streets just because of lower capacity in prisons. There needs to be constant checking as to increased crime rates post Covid-19”.
A senior official, speaking under conditions of anonymity, attributed the overcrowding to a variety of factors, including a “surge in crime rates, delayed judicial processes, and a lack of alternative sentencing options.”. As the inmate population continues to swell, the need for urgent and comprehensive reforms within the criminal justice system becomes increasingly evident, the official noted.
NGOs and human rights organisations have also called for immediate action to improve the overall state of the prison system. Some have also suggested the need for community-based rehabilitation programs to reduce the reliance on incarceration for non-violent offenders.
Paul pointed out that there is an immediate need to implement meaningful reforms that address the systemic issues contributing to the overcrowding crisis. “Separate cells should be formed for males, females, and transgender individuals. After the NALSA judgement, trans people are also granted citizenship under the 1955 Citizenship Act, so accordingly, steps should be taken to accommodate separate prison cells for them as well,” he said.
West Bengal also ranks third highest in the number of inmates housed in special jails, with 1,228 prisoners, after Kerala with 1,519 and Odisha with 1,687 inmates. Bengal also has the highest number of foreign nationals under trial as prisoners, i.e., 2,053. As many as 471 out of these have been convicted so far, according to the NCRB report.