Mumbai: Since 2000, at the end of every year, the National Crime Record Bureau or NCRB has published data on deaths that occur in Indian jails.
This is the only publicly available data on deaths in jails and gives a general sense of what circumstances lead to these deaths.
Classified under “natural” and “unnatural” deaths, for over two decades, around 1,800 persons have died in Indian jails every year. This number, however, shot up dramatically in 2021, with 2,116 prisoners dying. The numbers, alarming enough, have now pushed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to issue a 21-page advisory for states to handle deaths in prison, particularly those caused by suicide.
The advisory, issued on July 19, focuses on the ways to mitigate self-harm and suicide attempts by prisoners. Stressing the fact that suicides in prisons are multifactorial, arising out of both medical and mental health issues, the NHRC has sought an increase in the staff strength of prisons and for adequate training of said staff. It has also advised screening of incarcerated persons at the entry-level, and the supervision and monitoring of “high-risk” prisoners, along with a collaborative framework for mitigating suicide in prisons.
Before this, the NHRC had issued a similar advisory in 2014. By its own admission, the number of deaths has not come down in the past decade. If anything, it has shown a drastic increase, pushing the commission to issue a more exhaustive guideline this time.
A lack of staff
Among the most important measures the NHRC has called for is the filling up of vacancies and augmenting staff strength.
In prisons, based on their duties and responsibilities, staff are categorised into the following five categories: executive, medical, correctional, ministerial and others. India’s prisons have for long been plagued by acute shortages of staff and the vacant positions go unfilled year after year. Additionally, the number of these sanctioned positions never changes to correspond with the problems of overcrowding, which in some prisons has disturbingly crossed over 500%.
As per the 2021 NCRB data, the total number of sanctioned positions for medical officers in prisons is 3,497 – spread across 1,319 prisons across India. People in these positions are meant to be in charge of a maximum of 425,609 prisoners.
This means that one medical employee is responsible for the health of over 122 prisoners on a daily basis.
However, the number of prisoners (as per the National Prisons Information portal), as on June 28, was 572,928.
And of the total sanctioned posts, only 2080 are actually filled. This means one medical officer ends up being responsible for the health concerns of 276 prisoners.
And not all of these medical staff are doctors, they comprise everyone from nurses to ward assistants who are employed to work in the prison hospital. Very few among them are psychiatrists.
Also, the number of hospital staff is not evenly distributed. In some states like Bihar as many as 244 posts are lying vacant – the most out of all states, followed by Uttar Pradesh, where 201 positions are to be filled.
In the absence of medical officers in jail, prisoners have often been transported to hospitals outside. NCRB data shows that in 2021, prisoners were taken to outside hospitals a total of 436,732 times.
Little known on deaths
Considering the opacity of prisons, deaths in prisons seldom undergo independent inquiry and easily get termed “natural deaths”.
For example, in 2016, the prime accused in the infamous Swati murder case, Ramkumar, was found dead in a suspicious condition inside the Puzhal Central prison. Ramkumar, while lodged in the high-security prison, had allegedly bitten on a live electric wire and killed himself. As highly improbable as it may sound, the state labeled the cause of his death as ‘suicide.’
In 2006, the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) amended Section 176 (1) to Section 176 (1) (A), thereby making judicial magisterial inquiry compulsory in place of an executive magistrate inquiry in case of deaths and rapes in custody. This section – a good 16 years since its existence – is one of the most ignored.
Then in 2010, the NHRC issued a ‘guideline’ negatively impacting the statute’s effectiveness. In what appears to be a narrow reading of the section, the NHRC’s guideline stated, “When there is no suspicion or foul play or where there is no evidence or allegation of an offence, an inquiry by a Judicial Magistrate is not mandatory.”
Since 1993, the NHRC has mandated intimation of a death in custody within 24 hours of its occurrence. These intimations were to be followed with post-mortem reports, magisterial inquest reports or videography reports of the post-mortem.
The NHRC, however, has not gone beyond collecting these reports and accepting them at face value. Moreover, many researchers and journalists who have tried accessing these details from the NHRC have been denied access, even under the Right to Information Act.
Among the total number of prisoners, 9,180 incarcerated persons suffer from mental illnesses, the data claims. Most of these prisoners already had a history of mental health issues. Very few actually get diagnosed after they end up in jail. The NHRC’s new advisory asks for the screening of prisoners right at the point of entry but unless every state brings in enough mental health practitioners, identifying mental ailments is not possible. In the advisory, the NHRC asks the state to train the existing medical staff to be able to detect mental ailments in newly brought-in prisoners, if any. But as a common practice, in most prisons, jail officials do not involve medical staff in the screening process. It is entirely handled by the executive and administrative staff of prisons.
And as a solution, the NCRB suggests setting up more CCTVs and 24×7 surveillance of prisoners to counter suicidal ideation. In an extremely hierarchical structure, evading accountability from both state and judiciary, more surveillance would only lead to more violations of the human rights of prisoners.
From time to time, both the Supreme Court and high courts have passed judgments directing police to take incarcerated persons’ mental health seriously. Mental illness has been considered an important ground for granting bail by the top courts. But for a person with an unsound mind, building a case before the court necessitates adequate legal representation. When over 70% of Indian prisoners come from poor, illiterate, disadvantaged backgrounds, the chance of being adequately represented before courts remain scant.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers they can call to speak in confidence. Icall, a counselling service run by TISS, has maintained a crowdsourced list of therapists across the country. You could also take them to the nearest hospital
This article was first published by TheWire and written by Sukanya Shantha