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Overcrowding in Prisons: Problems and Solutions

Prison overcrowding is a complex issue and cannot be solved by the prison administration or the government alone. It is responsible for bad prison environment, more deaths and suicides, skin diseases, mental health problems, lack of sleep and prison violence etc. Combating prison overcrowding requires a systematic approach and concerted action by all relevant stakeholders.

There needs to be constant dialogue and common understanding and action involving legislators, judges, policy makers, prosecutors, police officers and prison and probation officers in each state. Lack of adequate resources to deal with overcrowding problem in prisons is another stumbling block in running the prison administration effectively. 50 steps to combat overcrowding in prisons have been discussed here.

Overcrowding in prisons is a common problem and afflicts many countries. Though it is difficult to define the term because there is no single internationally accepted standard, it is generally assumed that when the number of prisoners exceeds the prison capacity, it is called overcrowding. It is one of the biggest problems faced by prisons and causes lack of sleep, poor mental health, self-harm, suicide, death, poor hygiene, ill health, and misconduct along with post release recidivism for the prisoners. Prisons are also called Jails or Correctional Homes in India.

The people lodged in jails largely come from the poorest and most backward sections of the society and often suffer from high levels of health problems due to socio economic and health imbalances and are more prone to drug or alcohol dependency, mental health problems or other diseases and can be easily drawn into custody.

Prison authorities find it more difficult to follow international guidelines to ensure humane conditions when faced with overcrowding in prisons. As overcrowding puts pressure on resources, to manage prisons effectively becomes harder. Staff morale can be affected negatively, control and security concerns created and can lead to increasing conflict and violence, higher death and suicide rates, higher discipline infraction, the availability of illicit drugs, lack of healthcare, poor material conditions, increased illness complaint rates, social, psychological and physiological issues in the prison environment due to overcrowding.

Some experts say that partition of open dormitories into privacy cubicles has a strong positive effect as indicated by the reduction or elimination of negative effects typically associated with open dormitories.

Prison overpopulation may seem like a positive sign for some people. They may think that means the justice system is working and criminals are off the streets.

To give reasonable space and facilities in jail is essential keeping in mind the human rights of the prisoners.

Causes of Overcrowding

The major causes of increase in prison population are excessive use of pre-trial detention and the use of prison for minor and petty offences. Further, the number of prisons or their capacity has not increased in proportion to the increase in population.

Most people think that prison populations increase due to rising crime rates and longer sentences imposed by the courts, but the causes of overcrowding are multi-factored and multi-layered. As for example, the crime rate in both Singapore and Japan is low, but Singapore has a high

Imprisonment Rate Whereas Japan Has A Low Imprisonment Rate.

There is no department or agency to look into the aftercare of prisoners in India. Some of the released prisoners may not have a place to go after their release and hence they are sent back to the prisons after commission of a crime.

Overcrowding is dependent on criminal justice policy not of increased crime rates, and disables the ability of prison systems to meet basic human needs, such as healthcare, food, and accommodation. It also compromises the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs, educational and vocational training, and recreational activities.

The excessive use of pre-trial detention, arbitrary arrests, allegedly false cases, misuse of power of arrest, differential treatment of weaker sections of society by the law enforcement agencies, and the use of prison for minor and petty offences, is critical drivers of rise in prison population.

Effects of Overcrowding

Prison crowding is often identified as the cause of inmate misconduct, ill health and of post release recidivism.

Overcrowding, as well as related problems such as lack of privacy can also cause or exacerbate mental health problems and increase rates of violence, self-harm and suicide. It also magnifies the bad living conditions and reduces the welfare indexes.

Parasitosis, skin diseases, both infectious and non-infectious are too frequent in overcrowded prisons. Some people suggest that overcrowding also increases the risk of syphilis, HIV and B hepatitis, since it favors risk taking behavior among inmates.

The prevalence of all aerially infections increases in overcrowded environments. The association of tuberculosis to overcrowding has been observed in many research works. The needs of women and children in detention tend to be even more neglected in overcrowded and overstretched prison systems.

The prison personnel working in overcrowded prisons face a greater risk in a number of ways. They have to encounter mental health issues, threat of infection, increased stress and greater potential violence from the prisoners. They also leave the prison service in greater number.

There is also an economic drawback. The large number of prisoners in prisons results in a lot of money coming from taxpayers in order to fund the prisons.

National and International Scenario

Occupancy rate of any jail is defined as the number of prisoners held against the sanctioned holding capacity of 100. If the occupancy rate is more than 100, the jail is called overcrowded.

The prison systems are operating above their official capacity in 121 countries. Out of these 121 countries, 13 have levels of overcrowding higher than 250%. Africa and Asia have the largest share of pre-trial detainees globally.

In Indian jails, nearly 8 out of 10 prisoners are awaiting trial. The occupancy rate has risen from 118% in 2020 to 130.2% in 2021, according to NCRB report, 2021.

In 12 States and 5 Union Territories of the country the occupancy rate remained less than 100%. However, Uttarakhand reported the highest percentage of overcrowding (185.0%), followed by Uttar Pradesh (184.8%), Sikkim (166.9%), Madhya Pradesh (164.1%), Meghalaya (160.1%), Maharashtra (148.8%), and Chhattisgarh (148.6%), among the states and Delhi reported the highest overcrowding (182.5%) among the union territories, according to NCRB report.

The occupancy rate in women prisons has decreased from 62.0% in 2014 to 56.09% at national level in 2019 (as on 31st December). However, the occupancy rate of women inmates in other prisons increased from 72.0% in 2014 to 76.73% in 2019.

There are 60 Prisons in toto in West Bengal, out of which 8 are Central Prisons, 13 District Prisons, 4 Special Prisons, 4 Open Prisons, 1 Women's Prison and 30 Subsidiary Prisons.

At present, West Bengal has a prisoner population of 27490, out of which there are 25653 male, 1818 female and 19 transgender. Out of these 184 are children living with their prisoner mothers.

The number of prisoners in Dum Dum Central Correctional Home is the highest (3642), followed by Presidency Correctional Home (2266) and Berhampore Correctional Home (2453).Out of these, 15 prisoners (including 01 woman) have been awarded death sentence. There are 111 male and 33 female prisoners who have been released, but are yet to come out of the prisons due to procedural delay. They are mainly Bangladeshi nationals.

33 numbers of Correctional Homes have been found to be overcrowded in West Bengal. In the year 2009, prison population of West Bengal was 17586, as compared to 18519 in 2010, 19508 in 2011, 21679 in 2012, 21385 in 2013, 22496 in 2014, 21523 in 2015, 22969 in 2016, 24347 in 2017, 23810 in 2018 and 23092 in 2019, 25863 in 2020, 25769 in 2021 and 27490 in 2023.

There are 08 Central Correctional Homes in West Bengal with a population capacity of 10876, 13 District Correctional Homes with a population capacity of 4572, 04 Special Correctional Homes with a population capacity of 599, 04 Open Correctional Homes with a population capacity of 315, 01 Women's Correctional Home with a population capacity of 226 and 30 Subsidiary Correctional Homes with a population capacity of 2465. Hence, there are 60 Correctional Homes in West Bengal with a population capacity of 21476; whereas the actual capacity is 27490 at present, which mean overcrowding of 128.0%.

Solutions to overcrowding problem

The overcrowding in the prisons can be reduced by taking the following measures:
  1. Construction of new prisons at places where court is running but there is no prison.
  2. Upgradation of overpopulated District and Special Prisons to Central Prisons.
  3. Renovation of the existing overpopulated Central Prisons.
  4. Vertical/Horizontal extension of prison wards wherever it is feasible.
  5. Renovation of old buildings to make use of unutilized and underutilized prisons' barracks.
  6. Shifting of prisoners from overpopulated Central Prisons to District and Subsidiary Prisons.
  7. Construction of a greater number of Open Prisons.
  8. Shifting of a greater number of Convicts to Open Prisons.
  9. Making the grant of Parole to convicts more frequent and liberal.
  10. Releasing Undertrial Prisoners on parole. Normally only convicts are released on parole.
  11. Keeping old and terminally ill convicts under supervised parole at their homes.
  12. Extending good quality legal aid to all prisoners. It is difficult to engage good advocates for free legal aid to poor prisoners due to inadequate and irregular remuneration paid to them. Further, they seldom meet the prisoners in jail.
  13. Setting up Permanent Legal Aid Services Unit in all Central and District Prisons.
  14. Establishing institutionalized mechanism for releasing prisoners who have been granted bail but cannot be released for lack of sureties.
  15. Making more liberal the process of premature release under State's, Governor's, and President's power of granting remission.
  16. Encouraging prisoners in plea-bargaining.
  17. Making effective use of the provision of section 436A of CrPC in respect of release of UTPs.
  18. Regularizing the mechanism for the transfer of foreign national convicted prisoners to their native countries to serve their remaining part of sentence.
  19. Increasing the prisoner holding capacity of Central, District, Special, Open, Women's, and Subsidiary Prisons.
  20. Filling up the vacant posts of magistrates and judges timely for regular hearing of bail petitions and regular trial.
  21. Reviewing periodically cases of prisoners languishing in Prisons under NDPS Act & POSCO Act, as a large number of UTPs are allegedly incarcerated booked under these two Acts.
  22. Reviewing periodically cases of UTPs in prisons for an inordinately long period.
  23. Releasing funds from the authorities regularly for the construction and modernization of prisons. Making provisions for legal aid to the prisoners sponsored by CSR initiatives and reputed NGOs.
  24. Upgradation of Subsidiary Prisons to District Prisons.
  25. Holding 'Jail Adalat' regularly.
  26. Ensuring automatic release of UTPs after a lesser period in prison by amending the provisions of 436A CrPC.
  27. Setting up a fund for payment of fine of indigent prisoners who cannot afford to get out of prisons after paying the fine imposed by the courts. Prisoners who cannot pay fines should not be jailed automatically.
  28. Amending the provisions of law by which the consent of the central government is required to be given to the state government for the premature release of prisoners held under any Central Act, as this process results in delay in release of prisoners.
  29. Framing laws for the release of prisoners who have become old and infirm or have attained the age of 60 years and release of women prisoners who have attained the age of 50 years.
  30. Investing in non-custodial alternatives to detention both pre-detention and post-sentence and encouraging alternatives to prison in the cases of women, especially where they have caretaking responsibilities, taking into account their background and mitigating circumstances of the offense.
  31. Diverting petty cases out of the criminal justice system altogether, such as cases of petty theft, small scale fraud, other minor economic offenses, and public order offenses (if not decriminalized), among others.
  32. Investing in long-term strategies for crime prevention and detention.
  33. Reducing high rates of pre-trial detention by improving access to justice.
  34. Making special or alternative arrangements for vulnerable groups, such as children, mothers with dependent children, and people with mental health issues.
  35. Encouraging legislators and policymakers to consider repealing mandatory minimum sentencing provisions that do not allow for any discretion during sentencing.
  36. Limiting the use of life imprisonment to the most serious offenses.
  37. Reducing the length of sentence.
  38. Taking prison capacity into account in the enforcement of pre-trial detention or prison sentences.
  39. Reforming legislation and policies of drug offenses and making differentiation between large-scale drugs traffic, street corner dealing, and drug peddling, etc.
  40. Reducing the imprisonment of people with mental health needs.
  41. Releasing prisoners on compassionate ground on special occasions depending on age, health condition, disability, and threat to society.
  42. Improving cooperation between criminal justice actors.
  43. Preventing arbitrary arrest and reducing the pre-charge detention period.
  44. Granting bail liberally.
  45. Releasing eligible prisoners on personal bond or surety.
  46. Applying restrictive measures on the accused person instead of putting him into jail.
  47. Allowing the police, the prosecution service, or other agencies dealing with criminal cases to discharge the offender if they consider it not necessary to proceed with the case.
  48. Diversion to alternative dispute resolution process by arranging interaction between the victims and offenders to make a plan about how the offender will put the wrong right.
  49. Fixing accountability of the actors of the criminal justice system in respect of the decisions they take.
  50. Introducing some mechanism to help released prisoners rebuild their lives.

Overcrowding in prisons throughout the world is a serious issue for the prisoners and prison officials and needs to be addressed in right earnest. It not only makes the lives of prisoners in prisons vulnerable and uncomfortable but also poses problems for prison administration.

Overcrowding in prisons may lead to increase in the number of deaths in prisons. A change in mentality may help reduce prison overcrowding. The current view is to punish offenders instead of reforming them. What gets most overlooked is the rehabilitation. Offenders will one day go back into civilian life. However, they do not always necessarily receive the tools to return to life outside of prison.

Putting in place more education and job oriented programs may help to decrease the return rate of prisoners, and ultimately the prison population. Increasing the awareness of the international community and of the public administration is very important to handle socio-sanitary deficits in the prisons.

  1. Penal Reform International - Overcrowding: Key Facts
  2. International Journal of Prisoner Health - Morag MacDonald: Overcrowding and its impact on prison conditions and health -
  3. Effect of Prison Crowding on Inmate Behaviour, Author(s), Garvin McCain, Ph.D., University of Texas at Arlington; Verne C. Cox, Ph.D., University of Texas at Arlington; Paul B. Paulus, Ph.D., University of Texas at Arlington, December 1980,
  5. Garc�a-Guerrero J, Marco A - Overcrowding in prisons and its impact on health,
  6. Gerald G. Gaes - The Effects of Overcrowding in Prison,
  7. J Garc�a-Guerrero, A Marco - Overcrowding in prisons and its impact on health,
  8. St�phanie Baggio, Nicolas Peign�, Patrick Heller, Laurent G�taz1, Michael Liebrenz, Hans Wolff1 - Do Overcrowding and Turnover Cause Violence in Prison?,
  9. UNODC - Handbook on strategies to reduce overcrowding in prisons,
  10. Extract from the 31st General Report of the CPT published on 21 April 2022 - Combating prison overcrowding,
  12. Reports of Superintendents of 60 Correctional Homes of West Bengal
  13. NCRB Reports

Written By: Md. Imran Wahab
, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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