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Business News/ Opinion / Prison economics and the gap between different states

Prison economics and the gap between different states

Data from the Prison Statistics India shows that the state spends Rs51 per inmate daily on food, clothing and medicine

Photo: AFPPremium
Photo: AFP

Remember the Bollywood movies of old where a poor man, on the eve of his arrest, consoles himself with the thought that at least in jail, he will get do waqt ki roti? That turns out to be true even today.

Data from the Prison Statistics India shows that the state spends 51 per inmate daily on food, clothing and medicine. Twisted as the comparison may sound, that 51 spend is well over the government’s own poverty line of 47 per day in urban areas and 32 per day in rural areas.

This is not to argue that people below the poverty line will find the material conditions in prisons attractive. The 51 per inmate per day is not a generous amount, given that prisoners only receive the bare-minimum necessities required for survival. The appalling conditions in India’s overcrowded and crime-ridden jails have also been amply documented.

Not all states take equal care of inmates. On the surface, it may appear that Delhi, which spends around 85,000 annually per inmate, is the most generous. However, the biggest expenditure on inmates in Delhi is slotted under a section titled “Others", which typically includes expenses such as overheads and security costs.

When only food, clothing and medicine expenditure are considered, the north-eastern states turn out to be the biggest spenders. Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh spend above 70,000 per inmate annually. Maharashtra and Lakshadweep spend the least: the former spent close to 12,000 per inmate annually, while the latter spent a pitiful 714 a year. Gujarat spends a similarly low amount of 13,000 annually.

One reason could be that “states like Gujarat and Maharashtra, which spend the least on inmates, have a very high occupancy rate", says Akhilesh Kumar, chief statistical officer at the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), who compiles data from various sources.

But that is not necessarily true since Nagaland’s prison occupancy rate is only 31% compared to 227% for Arunachal. In Maharashtra and Gujarat, it is around 100%.

Others such as Raja Bagga, project officer with the Prison Reforms Programme of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, say that the variation in expenditure is also because prisons are a state subject.

“Even differences in diet can change the costs," he says.

States also have a lot of discretion when it comes to spending on welfare and vocational/educational activities. Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Telangana are the most generous, while Punjab, Rajasthan and Arunachal Pradesh do not spend any money on this at all.

Overall, all costs considered, the state spends 81 per inmate daily. In the last 14 years, there has been a steady increase in costs. While the prison population all over India has increased by 33% since 2001 to about 4.2 lakh inmates now, the total annual expenditure per inmate has risen by 243% over the same period. Food, clothing and medicine expenses per inmate have increased 84%, even after adjusting for inflation.

This is linkedPrison economics, among other things, to prisons’ “welfare activities, its technological advances and facilitating monitoring by judicial and non-judicial bodies", says Bagga.

Kiran Singh, a consultant and advocate with Multiple Action Research Group (MARG), an NGO that works to provide legal empowerment to the underprivileged, explains that conditions in prisons have improved over the last few years.

“While a lot of the money has gone into technological upgradation and security expenditure, under pressure from civil society and NGOs, there has been an attempt to invest in welfare activities such as building facilities for women prisoners and for their children," she says.

Moreover, prisoners also make some money. Last year, the sales proceeds from goods produced by inmates across India amounted to 1.5 billion, or 3,600 per inmate. There has been a 275% rise in this income from 2001, reflecting the somewhat uneven, but overall increase in vocational/education and welfare expenditure.

However, there is no clarity on where this money goes. Singh explains that this would differ from state to state, and would also depend on the heads of the jails. The value of goods produced per inmate is highest in Kerala, at 30,000 annually.

“These funds are usually not routed back to the prison, except for the money apportioned for running of these [vocational] industries. As prison is a state subject, different states have different policies regarding the same. Tamil Nadu shares 20% of the proceeds with the prisoner, and another 20% goes to the Prison Staff Fund. The rest is used for the manufacturing the goods and a portion as government receipts," Bagga says.

Sadly, spending more money per inmate doesn’t make prisons more humane. Data from last year shows that a shocking 68% of prisoners are undertrials. Moreover, only the rich can afford the full paraphernalia of legal aid and bail required to get out of jail, meaning that those who languish behind are often the poor and the marginalized. Moreover, given the widespread variation in expenditure, how you are treated may simply depend on which part of India you are in.

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Updated: 04 Nov 2015, 03:30 PM IST
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