India prisons Why security needs to be improved

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India prisons: Why security needs to be improved

Image caption
The prisoners escaped from a high-security prison in Punjab on Sunday

Two major jailbreaks in a month have shone a spotlight on security in India”s overcrowded and under-staffed prisons. BBC Hindi”s Vineet Khare reports.

On Sunday, five armed men in the northern state of Punjab attacked the high-security Nabha prison and freed six inmates. One of the escapees, a Sikh separatist leader, was recaptured on Monday.

It was a brazen attack. Assailants dressed in police uniforms arrived “on the pretext of depositing a prisoner” but began firing indiscriminately as soon as the prison gate was opened. They escaped with the inmates in a convoy of vehicles.

“This is what happens when there is diversion of jail staff to non-jail work and infrastructure is creaking,” said retired police officer Prakash Singh.

More than 180 prisoners have escaped in more than 40 jailbreaks over the past two years, latest government figures say

Last year, two inmates escaped from the high-profile Tihar jail in the capital Delhi by digging a tunnel under a wall.

Last month, eight prisoners escaped from a high-security jail in the city of Bhopal in central Madhya Pradesh state. The inmates, members of an outlawed Islamist group, were killed outside Bhopal after they resisted arrest, police said.

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Eight prisoners escaped from this prison in Bhopal last month

The men used bed sheets to scale the walls of the prison before escaping the high-security Bhopal Central Prison, police said.

The police version was questioned when unverified videos of the killing of the men surfaced from the outlawed Students Islamic Movement of India. The matter is being investigated.

India”s prisons are notoriously overcrowded and under-resourced.

Some 1,400 prisons house nearly 420,000 inmates against a capacity of 366,7810, according to India”s National Crime Records Bureau.

More than a third of positions for prison guards and officers are lying vacant. Nearly half of the staff positions in Tihar are vacant.

Inmates “do everything”

It is estimated that more than two-thirds of the prisoners in Indian jails are on trial, contributing significantly to overcrowding.

The Bhopal jailbreak, described as an act of coldblooded murder by the inmates” lawyer, served again to highlight what was wrong with India”s prisons.

The prison houses more than 3,000 inmates against a capacity of 1,400.

Madhya Pradesh also has a history of jailbreaks:

Retired jail officials say no one is paying attention to a system that is crying out loud for support.

“Our jails are collapsing,” retired jail official GK Agarwal told me in Bhopal, showing me a number of handwritten official correspondences to officials, in which he had pleaded for reforms.

Two years ago, in a missive to top officials, Mr Agarwal had predicted a “big accident” at Bhopal jail owing to its “structure, vulnerable points, imprudent security and staff”s deplorable situation”.

But Mr Agarwal said nothing had moved.

Lawyer Dr Siddhartha Gupta, who spent two days in the jail on a minor charge of “disturbing peace outside the court” told me: “The presence of guards inside is next to nothing.

“It”s the inmates who do everything. From cooking to office jobs to counting inmates, everything is done by them.”

Under pressure to act, Madhya Pradesh”s new head of prisons, Sanjay Choudhary, is promising “speedy modernisation”.

“We are enhancing security, increasing manpower and creating a high-security zone,” he said.