A short distance from Delhi sits Tihar jail, one of the largest prisons in the world. The ten sub-jails within the prison complex are home to more than 13,500 inmates.
Situated on the plains of northern India, the jail provides few comforts. Inmates bake through the sweltering heat of summer, while winters are cold and damp.
Tihar holds both sentenced prisoners and those on remand awaiting court proceedings. They are a pretty violent lot. A third of sentenced prisoners and a quarter of those on remand are held on murder charges. More than one in eight are in prison for rape.
Recognizing the importance of rehabilitation, the prison is making substantial improvements to its education programs, aiming to prepare inmates for successful reintegration into society. The reforms are being championed by the Director General of Prisons, Ms. Vimha Mehra.
Most prisoners poorly educated, but more graduates than in U.S. prisons
As elsewhere, the jail’s inmates are drawn largely from the country’s poor and uneducated. Two-thirds have no high school exit qualification. At the time of their admission to the jail, a fifth of male inmates and more than a third of females are illiterate.
At the other end of the scale, a few prisoners are highly educated. About 5% of males and 6% of females have graduate degrees, while 1% of males and 3% of females hold postgraduate qualifications.
By way of comparison, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in the U.S. about 40% of state prisoners, 27% of federal inmates, and 47% of those in local jails have no high school diploma or GED, compared to 18% of the general population. Almost two and a half percent of state prisoners and 3.2% of jail inmates have a college degree, compared to 8.1% of federal prisoners and 22% of the general population.
Collaborations bring new educational programs
At Tihar jail, prison education programs are already making a difference. The majority of illiterate prisoners are recent arrivals. Those who have been at the jail for some time have made significant progress with their literacy.
Now the jail is collaborating with the National Institute of Open Schooling, and with the Indira Gandhi National Open University to substantially improve the programs available.
Recently introduced courses include stenography, French, German, Spanish, English, and Hindi. An innovative program, run in association with the tourism ministry, trains inmates in hotel management.
Delays in getting cases to court bloat prison populations
In 2011 India had the world’s fourth-largest prison population, behind the United States, China, and Russia. Despite having a population of 1.2 billion, India’s prison population, at 313,600
is just 15% that of the United States.
Indian courts are notoriously slow at trying cases, resulting in defendants being held in prison for years awaiting trial. Across the country, these remand prisoners account for two-thirds of the prison population. In 2012, more than 23,000 remand prisoners had already been waiting for more than two years for their case to go to trial. Almost 16,500 had been waiting for more than three years.
Supreme Court ruling leads to thousands being released
India’s Code of Criminal Procedure states that remand prisoners should be released on personal bond if they have been held for half the maximum possible sentence for their offense, but the rule has not been followed. Following a September ruling by India’s Supreme Court on the issue, states are now reviewing the files of almost 255,000 remand prisoners and releasing those who have been held beyond the legal limit. Some, it turns out, have been held on remand longer than the maximum sentence they could have received.
Reviewing the cases is not straightforward, however. At Puzhal remand prison in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, 845 cases were brought for review. Magistrates could come to decisions on just 290 of the cases as no charges had yet been filed on the other two-thirds.
Despite these difficulties, prisoners are now being released in the thousands. Given that remand prisoners make up a majority of the prison population, this should do a lot to ease overcrowding. If education programs like those being introduced at Tihar jail can be rolled out across the country, the remaining prisoners will have a much better chance of making a successful return to society, and never seeing the inside of a prison cell again.