67% Prisoners Are Under Trials: Time To Use RTI To Probe Functioning of Under Trial Review Committees?
Data from the national crime bureau (NCB) for 2021 reveals that, of the 1,319 prisons in India, the maximum capacity of prisoners can be 4,25,609; however, prisons hold 5,54,034 prisoners - which means an excess capacity of 130.2%. In July 2022, former chief justice NV Ramana, at a public forum, gave a more explosive figure of 622,000 prisoners languishing in our jails.
This is a shocker, going by the fact that, in March 2020, when the pandemic broke out, and prisoners were suffering or dying due to COVID-19, the Supreme Court had suo motu directed state governments to release prisoners to decongest the prisons. Despite the release, numbers have scaled up.
Recently, Right to Information (RTI) activist Abhay Kolarkar procured information which revealed that, in Nagpur prison itself, there is an excess of 990 inmates, despite the release of nearly 500 prisoners during COVID-19 times, some of whom have returned. The situation is the same in every prison of the country and the Supreme Court directive, not only during the pandemic but even before in 2015 to decongest prisons, has not had much effect.  
As per a recent news report in The Wire, “By the end of 2019, in Maharashtra’s 64 prisons (with a capacity of 24,095 prisoners), the number of prisoners housed was 36,798. This meant the occupancy rate was at 152.2%. But as of July 17, the prison occupancy rate has dangerously crossed over to 180%, taking the total number of prisoners to 43,476.’’
Out of these thousands of prisoners in jail, 67% comprise under trials, most of who languish in jail for years on end. Hence, the Supreme Court, way back in 2015, in a directive which stands relevant even today, directed the national legal services authority (NALSA) along with the ministry of home affairs (MHA) and the state legal services authorities (SLSAs) to ensure that under-trial review committees (UTRC)s are formed in every district of the country and its meetings are held every quarter. This committee is headed by the district & sessions judge, with district magistrate and superintendent of police and secretary, and district legal services authority (DLSA) as members. Additionally, the court mandated these committees to review the cases of under trials who are unable to furnish surety after being granted bail by the court and of those accused of compoundable offences.
Soon after the SC ordered the formation of UTRCs, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) filed a series of RTI applications across the country to all state legal services authorities. The report, based on replies received from 26 states and union territories (UTs), poses a grim picture. Six years later, the situation remains grim, going by justice Ramana’s public statement and the 2021 NCB data.
As per the analysis of the report by Sugandha Shankar, programme officer, CHRI, “The findings show that only 149 districts out of 357 districts which responded held meetings within three months and therefore 60% of the districts did not comply with the mandate of holding quarterly meetings. Only 54 districts reviewed all the three categories of under trial cases. This essentially means that 85% did not follow the full mandate as directed by the Supreme Court. UTRCs in 16 states recommended 2112 cases for release which led to the release of 515 under trials only.”
The report further reveals, “Though there is some compliance, it is patchy and partial and the impact is uncertain. Most importantly, it is not clear if the purpose – no one must be detained for more than the period required by law – is being achieved. While the report highlights some good practices prevalent in many districts, it also points out implementation gaps observed during the analysis of the minutes of the meetings.”
The report states, in conclusion, “Yet another attempt has been made by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the form of under trial review committee (UTRC) to transform the broken line of justice into a full circle. In the ongoing writ petition, ‘Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1,382 Prisons’ Justice Madan B Lokur has observed that, ‘Unfortunately, even though Article 21 of the Constitution requires a life of dignity for all persons, little appears to have changed on the ground as far as prisoners are concerned and we are once again required to deal with issues relating to prisons in the country and their reform’.”
“The lower judiciary and the state governments have been reminded to maintain accountability and protect liberty. The highest officials in the district from the judiciary, the executive and police are mandated to coordinate their energies to periodically review the cases of under trials. This report is the first civil society initiative to measure the national level implementation and impact of the Supreme Court’s directions passed in 2015 to constitute UTRCs in every district that would conduct periodic reviews of detentions and ensure statutory releases that are due. The use of the right to information tool in gathering evidence towards this purpose immensely validates the findings about the actual performance of authorities mandated to implement and monitor the UTRCs,” it says.
Prabhakar Karandikar, former IAS officer of Maharashtra, who has used RTI extensively when in service, asks, “Can the RTI users or activists study this problem at least in one district from each revenue division in Maharashtra?”  
Very pertinent!
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
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