12/02/2022, 12.14
INDIAN MANDALA
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Overcrowded prisons: the Archdiocese of Mumbai brings hope to inmates

by Nirmala Carvalho

The occupancy rate in Indian prisons is 130%, with the vast majority of prisoners awaiting trial. Mental suffering is on the rise: at least 150 suicides were recorded last year. An organisation run by Bishop Allwyn D'Silva helps prisoners by facilitating their rehabilitation.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) - The Prison Ministry India (Pmi) organisation of the archdiocese of Mumbai is on the front line to give hope to prisoners, who are often forced to live in overcrowded prisons.

India's President Droupabi Murmnu, on the occasion of National Law Day, organised by the Supreme Court in New Delhi on 26 November, urged all branches of government to find an effective mechanism to reduce the time taken by the justice system, overcrowding in prisons and the suffering it causes. 

According to the Home Ministry's 'Prison Statistics India 2021' report, the number of prisoners decreased by 9.5 per cent between 2016 and 2021, but at the same time those awaiting trial or on trial increased by 45.8 per cent.

The document, compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau, states that as of 31 December, there were 554,034 inmates in prisons across the country, of whom 427,165 (77%) were awaiting trial. Most of them come from poor backgrounds. 

However, the capacity of Indian prisons is about 425,000, so the 2021 figures show an occupancy rate of about 130%, whereas a decade ago it stood at 112%. The problem is most severe in Delhi and the states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh where the employment rate has exceeded 180%. The highest increase was in the capital, where the figure rose from 60% to 183% in 10 years.

Speaking last month at the 13th Pmi National Congress, Msgr. Allwyn D'Silva, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Mumbai and president of the organisation, recalled that the global population has reached 8 billion people of which less than 0.15% are incarcerated: "In our country of 1.4 billion people, less than 600,000 people are incarcerated. This is less than 0.04% of India's population," he said.

Pmi has more than 8,000 volunteers who reach out to inmates in India's more than 1,300 prisons. They accompany inmates through a rehabilitation programme, promote the reintegration of former prisoners into society and provide housing for them and their families.

The organisation has witnessed first-hand the overcrowding in Indian prisons, where, according to data, for every 10 prisoners only two have received a sentence. Only five other countries in the world have a higher percentage of those incarcerated without trial than India: Liechtenstein, San Marino, Haiti, Gabon and Bangladesh.

"Guilty or not, imprisonment is traumatic and damaging to the human body, soul and spirit. When prisoners are finally released, how can we allow them to live with dignity?" wondered Mgr D'Silva.

According to government figures, more than 9,000 prisoners, or 1.7 per cent of the total, suffered from mental problems last year. The figure marks a slight increase from 1.5% in 2020. The number of prison deaths also rose, from 1,887 in 2020 to 2,116 in 2021. The vast majority died of natural causes related to heart or lung disease, but 150 suicides were also recorded.

Before their visits, Pmi volunteers sometimes pray and fast. They offer masses, Eucharistic adoration, make intercessory prayers, recite rosaries of Divine Mercy for the repentance, reconciliation and rehabilitation of prisoners.

"Even the harshest criminals are transformed into messages of hope," commented Mgr D'Silva. "We have homes in several states of India for released prisoners and their children, but we are always ready to take in other children in need. Thousands of prisoners have been reintegrated into society'.

Through the Pmi programmes, the "prisoners see the face of Christ in each of the volunteers," Mgr D'Silva continued. "But it is also an opportunity for us to walk new paths together in the service of the human family and all of Creation".

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