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Issue of Counting Deaths in India’s Prisons


Why is it in the news?

  • Recently, the prime accused in a murder case was found dead inside Chennai’s high-security Puzhal Central prison in 2016.
  • Officials claimed that the accused killed himself by “pulling and biting into a live electric wire”. Mr. Ramkumar’s father, however, alleged that it was an act of homicide.

More about the news

Classification of Prison Deaths

  • Prison deaths are categorized as either ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ in the Prison Statistics India report published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
  • In 2021, 90% of prison deaths were classified as ‘natural,’ which includes deaths due to aging and illnesses.
  • ‘Unnatural’ deaths encompass a wide range of reasons, including suicide, death due to inmates, assault by outside elements, firing, negligence or excesses, and accidental deaths.

Suicide in Prisons

  • A report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) found that the suicide rate among inmates is more than twice that of the general population.
  • After suicide, the most common causes of unnatural deaths in prisons are listed as “other” reasons or murder by inmates.
  • The socio-economic background of the inmate population often includes a lack of education and means to afford bail.

 Ambiguity in Classification

  • The distinction between natural and unnatural deaths is considered unclear by legal experts, as some deaths resulting from a lack of proper medical attention may be categorized as natural or unnatural.
  • Ambiguity, along with underreporting and inadequate investigations, often leads to a majority of deaths being classified as ‘natural.’

Factors contributing to deaths

  • Congested prisons, lack of access to medical care, and inadequate staff training are cited as contributing factors to prison deaths.
  • Only 5% of expenditure is allocated to medical facilities in prisons.
  • Infrastructure deficiencies result in callousness and neglect of inmates’ health, leading to ‘unnatural’ deaths that are attributed to ‘natural’ causes.

Investigations and Accountability

  • The NCRB is required to report custodial deaths within 24 hours, followed by post-mortem reports and inquiries.
  • However, disciplinary actions against erring officials are rarely taken.
  • There is a need for clear and reliable documentation, greater transparency, and accountability in investigating prison deaths.

Government’s Efforts

  • The Supreme Court and various guidelines emphasize the importance of inmates’ right to healthcare and mental health support.
  • Recommendations include investing in healthcare facilities, mental health units, training officers, and suicide prevention programs.
  • Addressing staff shortages, improving infrastructure, and allowing inmates access to literature and communication with family are suggested measures.

NHRC Recommendations

  • Regular checks on bed sheets and blankets to prevent suicides.
  • Mental health literacy training for prison staff.
  • Observation and support by prison staff, including trained inmate “buddies.”
  • Implementing the Gatekeeper Model for identifying prisoners at risk of suicide.
  • Addressing addiction issues among inmates.
  • Providing life-skill education and activities for inmates to channel their energies positively.

 Way Forward

Structural changes in the public and official mindset regarding prisoners and a revamping of the criminal justice system are considered essential to address the issue of prison deaths.

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