India's prison system can teach us through its mistakes

India's prison system can teach us through its mistakes

Low imprisonment rates, overcrowding highlight the beginnings of a serious problem.

In a previous opinion piece on this page in early April, I presented what I see as convincing evidence that Australian criminal justice systems in every state and territory are slowly but surely grinding to a halt. This worrying conclusion was based on the fact that currently just over 7000 people in jail are on remand while awaiting trial or sentence. Remand prisoners in Australia now comprise 23.4 per cent of all prisoners, which is extraordinarily high compared with about 40 years ago when they made up only about 10 per cent.

Towards the end of that piece, I made the point that we in Australia are nowhere near the total collapse of justice that we have seen recently in India. The reference to ''near total collapse'' prompted one of my readers to question whether or not I might have overstated the problems faced by India in the area of criminal justice? My answer is that the hard evidence more than justifies my conclusion.

Illustration: Warren Hackshall

Illustration: Warren Hackshall

I make no claim to expertise about India in general, but I have been there a number of times and have visited several Indian prisons and have spoken with many Indian prison administrators, both in India and elsewhere. I have also studied closely publications which compare imprisonment rates in different nations.

The most useful publication in this field is the World Prison Population List, which is compiled by Roy Walmsley of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, which provides the basic facts about the use of imprisonment in 218 independent countries or dependent territories. Now in its ninth edition, this publication is not perfect as not all of the data apply to the same dates but it is the best source of comparative prison data available.


From this source it can be seen that India at the end of 2010 had a total of 384,735 prisoners and a total population of nearly 1.2 billion, which equates to 32 prisoners per 100,000 of the general population - one of the lowest imprisonment rates in the world. I have always favoured imprisonment rates which are at the lowest possible level which is compatible with public safety, but it must be said that a rate of 32 is absurdly low and could not possibly provide any basis for public confidence or safety. But that low imprisonment rate is just the start of the problem for India.

The second major problem is that around 70 per cent of India's prisoners are on remand, or ''on trials'' as they call them. Putting these two basic facts together it can be seen that the sentenced prisoner rate in India is just under 10 per 100,000 of the general public. In other words, only one person per 10,000 is in jail serving a prison sentence after being convicted, while more than twice as many are in jail awaiting trial or sentence.

That 70 per cent of India's prisoners are on remand is nearly the highest in the world, with only Haiti at 84 per cent and Bolivia (75 per cent) being higher. I would suggest that any nation with over 10 per cent or 15 per cent of its prisoners on remand is not functioning satisfactorily (and Australia is now in that category) and any nation with over 50 per cent or 60 per cent is hardly functioning at all.

All of this is bad enough, but India's short-comings with its correctional systems do not stop there. Prison overcrowding is endemic throughout the system with occupancy rates of between 112 per cent and 123 per cent being reported for the whole of India in recent years. Some individual prisons seem to have two or three times the number of prisoners than they have the capacity to manage.

One could perhaps put some flesh on the bones of these dry statistics by describing the prisons I have seen in India, but that was some years ago and I also am conscious of the fact that international visitors to virtually any prison are rarely shown the full picture of what life is really like for the unfortunate inmates.

A more colourful picture is easily found from a quick search on the internet. For example, in 2011 it was reported that: ''Moradabad Central Jail in Uttar Pradesh is so chock-a-block with inmates that there isn't enough space for them to sleep. So the 2200 inmates in the jail, which is supposed to house only 650, sleep in shifts. Each morning when 600-odd prisoners go to court for their trial, the pressure eases somewhat and some inmates get their share of a 6ft x 2ft cell.''

There are many other similar stories, but all of us have read about the very recent cases of gang rape in India, which point to the presumption that at least some offenders feel there is nothing to fear from the criminal justice process. Public outrage in India about these grotesque crimes is reverberating around the world and this may lead to some improvement, but it is hard to be optimistic as there are so many problems to overcome.

Some Indian judges may believe that part of the solution may be found in the use of the death penalty which has been re-activated in recent months after a de facto moratorium for nearly a decade, but the recent hangings were of terrorists, not of domestic offenders.

So what is the relevance of all of this to Australia? It is simply to show that we must learn from India's mistakes in the same way that we are learning from the mistakes in the opposite direction made by the United States.

The first essential step is for us to recognise that we have the beginnings of a very serious problem.

It is time for us to insist that our governments, particularly at the state and territory level, take action to reverse this trend.

David Biles is a consultant criminologist in Canberra.

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