Privatise and outsource our prisons!

One needs to be a Sanjay Dutt to fetch lakhs in auction for his work, and that too while serving his jail term. For other prisoners, even a few hundreds is a boon. Indian prisons are still more like Nazi-era concentration camps than being places for correcting the guilty. With over 3 lakh prisoners packed across 1200 plus jails, the government is shamelessly unable to manage these centers and has reduced our prisons to human slaughter houses, where self-respect, dignity and morale are butchered at every single moment.

Prisons in India are not only a liability on society but have lost the very essence of their objective. Let me discuss this issue point by point. Most of the prisons in our country (barring two or maximum three) are a cost for the nation. The total expenditure on all prisons combined, across the nation, was estimated to be around Rs.2,69,726.80 lakhs during the year 2010-11, with every prisoner, on an average, costing the exchequer Rs.19,446.60 (2010-11 data)! Now, here is where the paradox lies. These criminals are stuffed (literally) into our prisons since they have created either an economic loss or social loss to the country; and they are then made to survive on the tax paid by that very aggrieved society. In simple terms, the total cost on all prisoners put together is shared by around 150,000 taxpayers!

What’s worse is that our prisons are no more corrective centers. With time, these are increasingly become training centers for to-be criminals. Since there is no such concept of correction in our prisons, even a one-time criminal comes out as a seasoned criminal. And why not? With the training of inmates for skill enhancements being poor, they are left with no option other than resorting back to the criminal world. For the uninitiated, the functions performed in Indian jails include tailoring, paper and leather work, carpentry, baking, textiles and candle making. And it requires no NSSO-type survey to find out that such skill sets without an enabling environment generate little productive engagements. Strangely, Gautam Doshi (group MD of ADAG) was assigned the work of making chairs and baking cakes and was paid peanuts in return. With 42.9 per cent prisoners being educated till class 10 and 6.44 per cent being graduates and above, it makes little sense for our authorities not to utilize their competencies. At least the more educated (professionals) can train those who are not that well educated, so that they can lead decent lives after their incarceration is complete. It’s astounding but true that the average monthly output per prisoner in India is no more than Rs.150, which is at the ebb of utilized resources. The compromise with performance is writ clear on the wall with annual pan India turnover being a meager Rs.66 crores.

This is where I advocate that our prisons should get privatized and their management outsourced. Imagine the condition of our jails where 368,998 prisoners are stuffed in prisons that can accommodate only 277,304 prisoners. Tihar Jail, in the heart of our National Capital, contains 8,000 inmates, and this figure is four times its capacity. This is not all. Our prisoners die less due to death sentences, but more on account of curable diseases, which they contract during their term in the prison! Around 1400 inmates died in 2010 alone! The biggest causes of death in prisons were diseases like Malaria, TB and Typhoid, and of course, the inhuman treatment prisoners receive. The footprints of healthcare facilities to inmates are extremely poor in Indian prisons. According to National Human Rights Commission, 70 per cent of the deaths in Indian cells occur due to TB, which is a curable disease! The overcrowding of prison cells and sordid conditions cause such diseases and the lack of medical facilities lead on to subsequent deaths.

Arindam ChaudhariIn spite of 2,266,832 prisoners in US jails – six times that of India – neither do they die of diseases nor do they come out of jails as social threats; they come out more as skilled individuals. This is where India’s prison management should take a cue – from the Federal Prison Industries Inc. (FPI), the corporate arm of the US Federal Prison System. It’s superior to our system by many measures with 88 factories operating in 79 prisons, with a total employment of 14,200 inmates and an annual turnover of $745 million (as of FY2011). It’s a business center par excellence – and most notably – despite technically being a government corporation, it does not operate under the heel or patronage of the federal government and neither does it receive a penny of government funding. FPI is responsible for its own profits and losses and is a completely self-sustaining unit. Its efficiency, professionalism and its orientation of treating prisons as a business corporation have ensured that FPI is never a liability on the federal treasury. So, the prisoners, instead of being a liability to the society by destroying tax payers’ money, are actually giving back their worth to them. In the years that FPI has been profitable, they have even been contributing back to the state’s exchequer! Other nations have also gone the privatization route to great effect. UK was the first European nation to allow privatization of prisons; Germany too followed the path. In these European countries and others, private prisons have been shown to enhance efficiencies significantly. No wonder that topnotch blue chip companies like Motorola, IBM, Compaq, Chevron and many more are regulars in utilizing the services of the jailed in US and in many European countries. Clearly, one can make out that in a country like India where efficacy gap between privately operated and publicly operated enterprises are extremely steep, much efficiency can be enhanced if private parties were allowed to operate jails!

Our government should immediately privatize our prisons (barring a few jails, where terrorists and the likes are imprisoned) and instead reduce itself to be an audit and regulatory body. It might seem like a distant dream now but as I’ve shown, it’s a commonplace practice in the West, especially in the US! Even in the US, there was a cost reduction of 10 per cent when jails were privatized! In India, it would be magical to witness such professionalism in prisons that could eventually create an environment wherein prisoners could be trained for their own wellbeing! And imagine an IPO of Indian prisons. I am sure it would give tough competition to many corporations, hands down! But can our government push for it realistically, at a time when our Parliamentarians haven’t even been able to pass retail privatization?

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