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Prison Deaths in India

The issue of prison deaths in India has been a matter of grave concern, and recent revelations shed light on the alarming statistics and causes behind these fatalities. The Supreme Court Committee on Prison Reforms has highlighted the rising trend of custodial deaths and suicides within the prison system, prompting calls for immediate action and reform.

This topic of “Prison Deaths in India” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

Understanding the Situation

Suicide: A Leading Cause of ‘Unnatural Deaths’

  • Suicide is identified as the leading cause of ‘unnatural deaths’ within Indian prisons, with Uttar Pradesh recording the highest number of suicides between 2017 and 2021.

Rise in Custodial Deaths

  • Custodial deaths have been on a steady rise since 2019, with 2021 marking the highest number of such deaths.

‘Unnatural’ Deaths Causes

  • ‘Unnatural’ deaths in prisons encompass various causes, including murders by inmates, deaths due to negligence or excesses, and accidental deaths. These occurrences raise significant concerns about the safety and security of inmates.

‘Natural’ Deaths

  • In 2021, 90% of the 2,116 prisoners who died in judicial custody were attributed to ‘natural’ causes. These include aging and illnesses, with diseases like heart conditions, HIV, tuberculosis, and cancer being common contributors.

The Reporting and Investigation Process

Death Investigations

  • The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has laid down specific requirements for reporting custodial deaths. These include the obligation to intimate a custodial death within 24 hours and providing post-mortem reports, magisterial inquest reports, and videography reports.

Enquiry by Commission

  • In cases where an enquiry by the Commission discloses negligence by a public servant, recommendations may include paying compensation to the Next of Kin (NoK), initiating disciplinary proceedings, and prosecuting the erring public servant.

Custodial Rape and Death

  • The Code of Criminal Procedure mandates a judicial magisterial inquiry in cases of custodial rape and death.

National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Statement

  • The NHRC, in its 2010 statement, clarified that a judicial magistrate inquiry is “not mandatory” in all custodial death cases.

The Need for Reform

Government’s Actions

  • Various measures have been proposed to address the issues surrounding prison deaths, including Supreme Court judgments emphasizing prisoners’ health and the Model Prison Manual of 2016, which outlines inmates’ rights to healthcare and mental health services.
  • However, rising suicide cases have prompted advisories, such as the NHRC’s June advisory that attributes suicides to medical and mental health issues.
  • The Supreme Court Committee on Prison Reforms has also put forth recommendations to address infrastructural issues, including the need to increase staff quantity and quality and improve communication for inmates.

Facts and Concerns

  • Justice M.B. Lokur has highlighted the ambiguity in distinguishing between natural and unnatural deaths.
  • Prison deaths are often under-reported, with the majority classified as natural. This under-reporting and rare investigation raise questions about the accuracy of the recorded causes.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the situation, with overcrowded prisons and inadequate medical staff contributing to the classification of COVID-19 deaths as natural.
  • Justice Lokur, in previous judgments, has pointed out the issues of congested prisons, limited medical access for inmates, inadequate staff, and the lack of proper training for staff.

Expenditure on Medical Facilities

  • Alarmingly, only 5% of the total expenditure is allocated to medical facilities in prisons, resulting in underutilized funds between 2016 and 2021. This reflects infrastructural deficiencies that contribute to neglecting the health of inmates.
  • Scholar Meenakshi D’Cruz argues that ‘unnatural’ deaths are often due to neglect and the refusal to provide care, leading to such deaths being ascribed to natural causes.
  • The case of Pratap Kute in 2012, arrested for rioting and house trespassing, exemplifies this issue, with an ambiguous cause of death. The Bombay High Court’s 2023 statement exposed the callousness and insensitivity of authorities.

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