Custody Deaths….
By Maxwell Pereira

Some years ago a kind of a shock treatment was meted out to us by a retired Chief Justice of India, then the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, who was invited by us to deliver the annual martyrs' day memorial lecture on October 21 that year. He shocked us all by starting his discourse with a statement that there were over eighty custody deaths in Delhi that year, in a year we proudly proclaimed to the world as a year of achievement without a single death in police custody!

Absolutely intrigued and indignant over this, we were wise to the true import and purport of the statement the luminary made, only after considerable thought and proper application of mind - for indeed, there were deaths in custody that year, but all these deaths had occurred within Tihar Jail, and hence in custody! Considering the fact that when one speaks or reads about 'custody deaths' one's mind invariably visualises only 'police custody' …we knew we had been right royally 'had' by the luminary!

But seriously, deaths in jails - or to use the correct term, in Judicial Custody, too, we believe are causing concern world wide. I was in England last week on a private family matter, when I had occasion to witness a raging debate locally… over deaths, especially prisoner suicides, rising to record levels in overcrowded jails! The newspapers reported that a record number of inmates killed themselves in English jails last month, triggering concerns about the ill-effects of the prison population rising so rapidly.

The Prison Reform Trust called for a re-appraisal of penal policy after the Home Office reported that 14 men died in prison of self-inflicted injuries last month, the highest figure since systematic records started 20 years ago. The total number in 2004 now stands at 70 there; and that is for the whole of England. Earlier there were 94 cases of prisoners taking their own lives last year, and a record 95 in 2002. But rarely has the monthly death toll been in double figures!

One of the worst affected local prison where the year's toll of self-inflicted deaths has gone to five, is Shrewsbury in Shropshire, which a Prison reforms Trust report has shown to be the second most overcrowded prison in the country with 89.3 per cent of inmates doubling up in single cells. (The Government's target is statedly 18%). The Prison Reforms Trust in England claims prisons cannot cope with a prison population which had reached over 75,000 in England and Wales by 1 August this year - an increase of over 1200 in the past year!

If tiny England is so concerned over ill effects of overcrowding in its jails, how much more should we be, here in populous India!!! Reportedly, more deaths occur in Tihar jail alone in a year, than in all the jails of England put together! And talking of overcrowding, one cannot but imagine the size in numbers that Tihar presents - undoubtedly a township that renders miniscule the size of most smaller townships in our land.

A few days ago, an inmate Rajesh of Central Jail number four of Tihar hanged himself from an iron grill, using a bag belt, it was reported. Statedly he was a patient of depression and had attempted suicide earlier as well. While on the earlier occasion the other inmates informed the jail staff for them to intervene in time, this time no one got to know till it was too late.

Authorities state it is common for a fresh entrant to jail life to be depressed consequent to the shock of incarceration, being cut off from the outside world and confined. Depression is not uncommon also among those expected to be resigned to fate having spent a considerably longer period behind bars; though depression among the latter category is to a lesser degree.

Jail authorities conscious to the problem and the likely outcome, are wary; and careful to confine newcomers in barracks in the company of others till they are 'broken in' and are mentally attuned to spending time behind bars and high walls. To fight the malady and towards sponsoring reform, the authorities in recent times have introduced yogic healing techniques, meditation and vipasana. While some NGOs dealing with the problem in conjunction with the jail authorities and the visiting jail chaplains from various regions claim substantial success in terms of benefits through this method, there are many others who do not subscribe to the theory of appreciable reformism achieved.

I am sure the concerned authorities and the ministries are fully aware of the scenario in this regard in our country. But this having been said, perhaps the public too needs to know the correct picture in terms of statistics. The number of deaths in a year behind prison walls, with reasons therefore, and the number of self-inflicted deaths and whether at all any analytical study in respect of these has been conducted, and so on.

800 words: 14.09.2004: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// and


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