Underlying MP jailbreak: 34% prison positions vacant nationwide (Special to IANS)

An underlying issue of the controversial killing of eight Muslim undertrials after they killed a police officer and broke out of a jail in Madhya Pradesh is the staff shortage in Indian prisons, where 34 per cent of positions (27,227) were vacant, as on December 31, 2015, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of national prison statistics.

Of 419,623 inmates across all jails nationwide, 282,076 (67 per cent) are undertrials, whose cases take up to five years to come to trial, illustrating the slow speed of justice in India.

Questions have been raised about the post-prison-break firefight, with many describing it as an extrajudicial killing of eight alleged members of the proscribed group, Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The eight men were incarcerated in Bhopal jail, pending trial for several crimes, such as planning the assassination of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, making and supplying bombs, and involvement in the 2008 Ahmedabad bombings that killed 57 people.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan described the jailbreak as “very serious” and announced the suspension of five jail officials, including the jail superintendent. As a demand is made for a court-monitored inquiry, the underlying issues are the poor condition of Indian prisons and the delays in trying those accused of crimes.

No state was as short of prison staff as Bihar, which has 2,654 of the 7,860 personnel it should have, a shortage of 66 per cent, followed by Delhi (47 per cent) and West Bengal (41 per cent). In Madhya Pradesh, the shortage is 28 per cent.

The capacity of Indian jails is 366,781, but there are 419,623 inmates in these jails — which means jails are 114 per cent over capacity. Dadra & Nagar Haveli jails were 277 per cent over capacity, followed by Chhattisgarh (234 per cent) and Delhi (227 per cent).

High occupancy rates in jails can be linked to the large population of undertrials. Of 419,623 inmates across jails nationwide, 67 per cent (282,076) prisoners are undertrials-those detained in prisons during trial, investigation or inquiry –pointing to the slow speed of justice in India.

The large number of undertrials in India can be correlated to the lack of adequate judges in Indian courts, as lower-court vacancies are a leading cause of pending trials.

In absolute numbers, Uttar Pradesh had the highest number of undertrials (62,669), followed by Bihar (23,424) and Maharashtra (21,667). In Bihar, 82 per cent of prisoners were undertrials, the highest among states.

Undertrial prisoners in India are equal to the population of the Caribbean nation of Barbados.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ordered the release of all undertrial prisoners detained for at least half the maximum sentence prescribed for the offences they were charged with. Many who were languishing in jails because they could not pay sureties and bail bonds benefited.

Two million cases have been on trial for a decade or more as on December 2015.(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform. Devanik Saha is with the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend. Feedback at respond@indiaspend.org)–IANS