Towards reducing India’s prison footprint

Why in News?

  • Recent proposal to establish a prison complex in Narela, Delhi.


  • During the Constitution Day celebrations (26th November 2022), President Droupadi Murmu shared her experience of visits to prisons across India. 
  • She highlighted the plight of prisoners who were incarcerated for prolonged periods for minor offences and the struggles of their poor families.
  • She further emphasized that the legislature, executive, and judiciary should work together to address this issue. She also questioned the building of prisons to solve the problem of overcrowding.
  • However, in stark contrast, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has been directed to allocate 1.6 lakh square metres of land to Delhi’s prison department to build a district prison complex. 

Prison architecture and associated concerns:

  • The Delhi prison would be constructed in two phases – the first for high-risk offenders and the second for undertrials.
  • Phase 1 (expected to be completed by April 2024) would comprise a high-security jail with a capacity of 250 high-risk prisoners. 
  • The stringent security measures would be incorporated into the design like high walls between cells to prevent inmates from viewing and interacting with each other, office spaces between cells to facilitate better surveillance, etc.
  • According to the French philosopher, Michel Foucault,  prison architecture is often used as a tool to surveil, torture, and break the souls of inmates. 
  • With the newly proposed design of Delhi prison, the administration is looking forward to creating solitary confinement. 
  • It should be noted that this can have a serious impact on prisoners’ mental health.
  • At the Yale School of Architecture in 2017 students of Architecture and Mass Incarceration were asked to design a prison facility for extremely violent offenders as their final project. 
  • The models featured open and communal spaces, fresh air, and places for family visits and therapy. 

Status of Indian Prisons:

  • In India, prisons are governed by the Prisons Act, 1894, which is a colonial law. It is argued that it treats prisoners as sub-standard citizens, and provides the legal basis for punishment to be retributive instead of rehabilitative. 
  • It is also suggested that the laws are highly casteist and have largely remained unchanged since their formulation. 
  • For instance, some jail manuals still emphasize purity as prescribed by the caste system, and the work in prison is assigned on the basis of the prisoner’s caste identity.
  • Furthermore, Dalits and Adivasis are over-represented in Indian prisons. 
  • The National Dalit Movement for Justice and the National Centre for Dalit Human Rights’ report ‘Criminal Justice in the Shadow of Caste’ explains the social, systemic, legal, and political barriers behind this finding. 
  • It should be noted that legislation like the Habitual Offenders Act and Beggary Laws targets them for reported crimes.
  • The main reason behind overcrowded prisons in India is that the government has not done enough to truly prevent crime. The approach adopted is reactive instead of preventive.

Way Ahead:

  • President of India during her Constitution Day speech has insightfully noted that progress is antithetical to setting up prisons.
  • Thus the congestion in prisons should be addressed in non-carceral ways. Some measures can be to release unwell/old inmates, reduce penalties, allow bail at affordable costs, expedite trials, etc.
  • The public funds should be channelized towards public goods like housing, education, and employment so that people are not forced to commit crimes.
  • Justice U.U. Lalit’s recent judgment (three-judge bench of the Supreme Court) quoting Oscar Wilde while commuting a death sentence, that ‘Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future’ should be imbibed.
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