The state of Indian prisons

Prison Statistics India 2016

  • The Prison Statistics India 2016 was published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) during the first half of 2019.
  • This edition of the report is different from its earlier versions on account of its omission of certain key demographic data.
  • Despite these gaps, the report raises a number of red flags signalling the rot in India’s prison system.


The Prisoners:

  • As per the report, at the end of 2016, there were 4.3 lakh people in prison.
  • High under-trial population:
    • 68% of all the prisoners were undertrials, that is people who have yet to be found guilty of the crimes they are accused of.
    • India’s under-trial population remains among the highest in the world.
  • Due to unnecessary arrests and ineffective legal aid:
    • More than half of all undertrials were detained for less than six m onths in 2016.
    • This suggests that the high proportion of undertrials in the overall prison population may be the result of unnecessary arrests and ineffective legal aid during remand hearings.


Rise in people held under preventive detention laws:

  • Another disturbing point is the rise in the number of people held under administrative (or ‘prevention’) detention laws in J&K (a 300% increase), with 431 detainees in 2016, compared to 90 in 2015.
  • Administrative, or ‘preventive’, detention is used by authorities in J&K and other States to detain persons without charge or trial (often unfairly) and circumvent regular criminal justice procedures.

Image result for indian prison

New Addition – Data on prisoner release:

  • A new and important addition to the report is the number of prisoners eligible to be released and actually released.
  • Section 436A of the CrPC allows undertrials to be released on a personal bond if they have undergone half of the maximum term of imprisonment they would have faced if convicted.
  • In 2016, out of 1,557 undertrials found eligible for release under Section 436A, only 929 were released.
  • Research by Amnesty India has found that prison officials are frequently unaware of this section and unwilling to apply it.


Mental health concerns

  • High number of suicides:
    • The number of “unnatural” deaths in prisons doubled between 2015 and 2016, from 115 to 231.
    • The rate of suicide among prisoners also increased by 28%, from 77 suicides in 2015 to 102 in 2016.
    • The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 2014 had stated that on average, a person is one-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide in prison than outside.
  • Points to mental health issues:
    • The high rate of suicide is an indicator perhaps of the magnitude of mental health concerns within prisons.
    • The NCRB has said that about 6,013 individuals with mental illness were in jail in 2016.
    • However, it does not provide information on whether these prisoners were diagnosed with mental illness before entering prison. This makes it difficult to determine whether prison conditions worsened their plight.
  • Shortage of mental health professionals:
    • The report states that there was only one mental health professional for every 21,650 prisoners in 2016, with only six States and one UT having psychologists/psychiatrists.
    • Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the three States with the most prisoners with mental illness, did not have a single psychologist or psychiatrist.



Missing – Demographic details:

  • The most significant shortcoming of the report lies in the NCRB’s failure to include demographic details, despite being consistently published for the last 20 years
  • Data of religion and the SC/ST status of prisoners, which are crucial to understanding India’s prison population, was not included in the latest report.
  • As a result, overrepresentation of certain groups cannot be identified:
    • The demographic information was instrumental in revealing the problematic overrepresentation of Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis among under-trials in prisons.
    • The report of 2015, for instance, said that Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis accounted for 55% of the under-trial population and 50% of the convict population.

No information in the report on visitors to prisons:

  • The 2016 prison statistics do not mention the number of prison visits by official and non-official visitors which typically include district magistrates and judges, social workers and researchers.
  • This number could be used to provide some information on independent monitoring of prisons.
  • This is essential to uncover torture and other forms of ill-treatment, increase transparency and balance the power asymmetry in prisons.


Way ahead

Report could include statistics on undertrials waiting for bail:

  • In 2017, the Law Commission of India had recommended the release on bail of undertrials who have completed a third of their maximum sentence (for offences attracting up to seven years of imprisonment).
  • The NCRB should consider including the number of such undertrials in its upcoming report for informing the policy on the use of undertrial detention.



  • The report has important information which can be used to facilitate a dialogue on improving prison policies.
  • But any debate will be limited if critical information is delayed inordinately or withheld without credible reason.
  • If NCRB must be more open about its prison statistics for an improved democratic discourse in India.



GS Paper II: Polity

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