As per the latest report published by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2021, the number of women prisoners stood at 22,918 in total. Amongst these, 1,650 women were accompanied by their children. A staggering 1,418 women with 1,601 children were undertrial prisoners, while only 216 women were convicted prisoners. As per this data, there are only 32 jails reserved exclusively for women in the entire country. The occupancy rate of these jails is 6,767. 21 states and Union Territories have no women’s jails at all.
THE PROBLEM OF OVERCROWDING
Aside from the 32 women’s jails in the country, the female prisoners in the other correctional facilities are confined to smaller enclosures within the prison, to keep them separate from the men. Even within women’s jails, the problem of overcrowding exists. Data provided by the Prison Statistics 2019 report by the NCRB shows that as per the state-wise break-up of the occupancy rate in women-only jails, the correctional facilities are stretched beyond their limit and are overcrowded.
Overcrowding is the condition wherein the number of inmates housed in jail is larger than the sanctioned strength. A major cause of this is the fact that over 50% of all prisoners are not convicts, but undertrial. The majority of the women in India’s prisons have not been convicted of any crime, but are currently awaiting trial. Even with the introduction of fast-track courts and attempts for speedy trials, the functioning of the justice system continues to lag, due to the immense bureaucratic pressures and heavy workload of the courts. While considering the case of a man accused under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, the Supreme Court commented on the overcrowding problem in jails and directed the courts to ensure that trials are taken up and concluded speedily. The Court went on to observe that the living conditions caused by overcrowding are appalling and that the injustice wrecked on the individual as a result is immeasurable.
Overcrowding not only compromises the security of jails but also causes unhygienic and unsanitary living conditions for the prisoners, and deprives them of their right to live with dignity, as well as the other rights granted to them under Article 21 of the Constitution. The Presidency Correctional Home in Kolkata was a bleak example of the misery that female prisoners underwent due to the overcrowding problem: 45 women were housed within a single room in the facility, with a complete lack of privacy. Necessities such as a single toilet had to be divided among 40 women.
Enclosures for women within a larger prison for men lead to unequal distribution of resources, with the needs of women being overlooked. Professor Vijay Raghavan, the head of Prayas, a project that works for the legal rights of prisoners, observed, “In a structure that is designed for male prisoners, women get marginalized and their needs and problems become secondary as they are fewer in number.”
India has seen a worrying decline in medical staff, particularly in female medical personnel, to provide women prisoners with the physical, reproductive, and mental healthcare they need. Aside from overcrowding, which causes unsanitary conditions, there is an insufficient number of basic requisites for hygiene, such as bathrooms and toilets. There is a lack of sufficient water for women to clean with, even while menstruating. The women are provided with a minimum of sanitary napkins every month and do not receive more even while undergoing a heavy flow. Furthermore, without the required minimum of clothing and undergarments, women are forced to reuse the same clothes, without the opportunity to wash them.
Women prisoners also lack proper nutrition, which is particularly detrimental to pregnant women. The food is prepared in unhygienic conditions, which led to the hospitalization of 81 female inmates in Byculla Jail due to food poisoning.
The statistics on sexual violence faced by women prisoners, other inmates, and by prison guards, are concerning. Being in such small numbers, confined to a tiny space, with little control over their movement; female prisoners are an easy target for custodial rape. The apathy of the officials, law enforcement, and the state plays no small role in ensuring that these incidents go largely unchecked. It is assumed that the actual number of sexual assaults is much higher than the official figures, given that victims are afraid of the consequences of speaking up.
The infamous incident that took place in Byculla Jail in 2017 is a stark reflection of the plight of female prisoners. Female jailors stripped, sexually assaulted, and beat to death 38-year-old Manjula Shetye after she complained about a lack of food rations. The brutality of this incident led to the outbreak of a violent riot by the other prisoners.
While this was hardly an isolated incident, it did open up questions about the treatment of female convicts in India. Women rights activists have observed that the brutal and inhumane treatment of women prisoners stems from the deep-rooted, societal belief that women in jail have not only broken legal rules, but moral norms as well, going against what is expected of them based on their gender. As such, they are held to a higher, more arbitrary standard than their male counterparts. The sexual violence inflicted on women prisoners is justified on the grounds of them being ‘deserving’ of their crimes. Moreover, female convicts receive little support from their families and are shunned or disowned by them. Given the fact that most of these women come from poor and marginalized communities, with little knowledge of their rights and even less access to good legal aid, they are vulnerable to the atrocities of the system and have no way of advocating for themselves.
A report published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development states that the rules of incarceration are laid down by various statutes such as the Indian Penal Code (1860), the Prison Act (1894), Model Prison Manual (2016), and so on. Guidelines have been laid down by the Central Government, directing the authorities to provide regular medical check-ups for female prisoners, establish separate jails for them, allow them to contact their families and advocates regularly, entitling them to the right to be searched only by female officers, and so on.
However, it is painfully clear that these guidelines are not followed. While India’s prison system as a whole is in desperate need of reform, women face a unique and challenging set of problems that men do not. Reproductive health and hygiene, lack of support and education, vulnerability to custodial torture, rape, mental health problems—the list goes on and on. Furthermore, with the vast majority of women in jails being from the lower economic strata, with little awareness of their rights—many of them being convicted based on coerced testimonies—they are all the more susceptible to the excesses of law enforcement.
While there have been attempts made by the Government and humanitarian organizations to reform the system, the bleak reality is that these attempts have barely scratched the surface. The Government must take greater measures to see that the aforementioned Acts and regulations are being duly implemented in the prisons. A pervasive effort must be taken to not administer punitive justice, but rehabilitative justice; to reform prisoners and return them to society changed. Above all, granting to women prisoners the rights guaranteed to every citizen under Article 21—the right to life, to live a fulfilling life with dignity and self-respect must be of the highest importance. Until then, it cannot be said that justice has truly been administered.
Author(s) Name: Punitha Miriam Ghooi (Ramaiah College of Law, Bangalore)
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