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Prison Deaths UPSC NOTE

 Issue of prison deaths in India

  • In August this 2023, the Supreme Court Committee on Prison Reforms found suicide to be the leading cause of ‘unnatural’ deaths — deaths other than ageing or illnesses — among Indian prisoners, with U.P. recording the highest number of suicides between 2017 and 2021. 

  • The report stated that “...the number of custodial deaths has seen a steady rise since 2019, and 2021 has recorded the highest number of deaths so far.” 

  • On the other hand, ‘natural deaths’ — 1,879 people in 2021 — were due to ageing and illnesses.

  • The suicide rate among inmates was found to be more than twice the rate recorded in the general population, as per a report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

  • Additionally, while the NCRB data documents the socio-economic background of the inmate population, the caste or religious profile of people who die is unknown.

How are prison deaths classified?

  • Every year, prison deaths are identified as ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ by the Prison Statistics India (PSI) report published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). 

  • In 2021, a total of 2,116 prisoners died in judicial custody, with almost 90% of cases recorded as natural deaths.

  • Ageing and illness account for ‘natural’ deaths.

  • Illness has been further categorised into diseases such as heart conditions, HIV, tuberculosis, and cancer. 

  • As the prison population swells, recorded natural deaths have increased.

  • ‘Unnatural’ deaths are more diverse in classification. 

  • They include suicide (due to hanging, poisoning, self-inflicted injury, drug overdose, electrocution, etc.) and death due to inmates, assault by outside elements, fire, negligence or excesses and accidental deaths such as natural calamities (earthquakes, snakebites, drowning, accidental fall, burn injury, drug/alcohol consumption, etc.). 

What have the courts said?

  • In a landmark Supreme Court judgment that drew attention to hostile prison infrastructure which results in custodial deaths.

  • Justice M.B. Lokur said that the NCRB’s distinction between natural and unnatural deaths is “unclear.” 

  • “For example, if a prisoner dies due to a lack of proper medical attention or timely medical attention, would that be classified as a natural death [due to illness] or an unnatural death [due to negligence]?”, he asked.

  • This ambiguity, coupled with the fact that prison deaths are under-reported and rarely investigated, results in a majority of deaths being classified as ‘natural’, media reports have noted.

  • Prisons are congested.

  • There is no adequate medical staff and the question on whether the available staff is properly trained to aid inmates. 

  • Only 5% of expenditure is spent on medical facilities, as per the PSI 2021 report. 

  • Moreover, between 2016 and 2021, money earmarked for spending on inmates was underutilised — ₹6,727.30 crore was the average national expenditure against a sanctioned ₹7,619.2 crore in 2021.

Other Challenges

  • The infrastructural deficiencies are both a cause and effect of callousness and neglect of the health of individuals in jail custody.

  • The refusal to provide care results in ‘unnatural’ deaths inside prisons, which are otherwise ascribed to ‘natural’ causes.

  • The neglect could be medical, psychological or a continued denial of access to healthcare, food or safety. 

are deaths investigated?

  • Since 1993, the NCRB is required to intimate a custodial death within 24 hours, followed by post-mortem reports, magisterial inquest reports or videography reports of the post-mortem. 

What has government done so far?

  • The Supreme Court in a 1996 judgment articulated the social obligation towards prisoners’ health, noting that they suffer from a “double handicap”. 

  • “First, the prisoners do not enjoy the access to medical expertise that free citizens have. Their incarceration places limitations on such access; no physician of choice, no second opinions, and few if any specialists. 

  • Secondly, because of the conditions of their incarceration, inmates are exposed to more health hazards than free citizens.

  • The Model Prison Manual of 2016 and the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, outline inmates’ right to healthcare, which includes 

    • adequate investment in healthcare facilities,

    • setting up mental health units, 

    • training officers to provide basic and emergency care, and 

    • formulating suicide prevention programmes to thwart such instances. 

  • In light of rising suicide cases, the NHRC in June this year issued an exhaustive 21-page advisory to States, highlighting that suicides arise out of both medical and mental health issues. 

  • The Supreme Court Committee on Prison Reforms made similar recommendations.

  • An infrastructural issue common to all is the need to scale both quantity and quality of staff, as several reports flag ‘overflowing prisons’ with inmate count exceeding capacity in at least 26 States. 

  • The NHRC recommended filling positions of “Prison Welfare Officers, Probation Officers, Psychologists, and Medical Staff,” further noting that “the strength should be suitably augmented to include Mental Health professionals.” 

  • Another recommendation is to allow inmates an “adequate number of telephones” with friends and family; 

  • Judgments also note that prisoners should be allowed access to newspapers or periodicals to “reduce the feeling of isolation” and “possibility of harmful activity.

  • To prevent suicides specifically, guidelines recommend a strict check on tools such as ropes, glasses, wooden ladders, pipes; initial mental health screening at the time of entry into jail; and installing CCTV cameras to monitor high-risk inmates.



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Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam: Prison Deaths UPSC NOTE
Prison Deaths UPSC NOTE
Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam
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