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Tihar Jail Violence: No Quick-Fix Solutions, Judicial Reforms Necessary

South Asia’s largest prison - Tihar Jail - has about 20,500 inmates, while the sanctioned strength to accommodate prisoners is just about 10,500. Overcrowded cells, collusion between inmates and corrupt officials and an indifferent administration have turned the jail into a hotbed of crime. Experts say an emphasis on judicial reforms might be the way forward to make Tihar a more habitable facility for prisoners.

By Naziya Perveen
New Update

Tihar JailTihar Jail | Representative image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement 

Tihar Jail, located in New Delhi, is one of South Asia’s largest and most notorious prison complexes. The prison was intended as a correctional facility, but the growing spate of violence and gang wars within the jail has cast a shadow over its reputation yet again. Why have the authorities been unable to curb the violence in Tihar for years?

The recent killing of Tillu Tajpuriya - an acused in the Rohini court shootout case of 2021 - is a case in point. Tajpuriya was allegedly stabbed to death by rival gangsters inside Tihar, and the jail authorities could not stop the violence despite the premises having multiple CCTVs, prison guards and surveillance teams. A distressing CCTV footage showed Tajpuriya being stabbed over 100 times inside the jail by his attackers. 

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After the Tajpuriya incident, Quick Response Teams were deployed in Tihar to ensure no one could throw cell phones or other devices into the jail premises. Last week, a Parliamentary Standing Committee for Home Affairs expressed serious concerns over Tihar prison’s safety and security, and senior officials of Tihar Jail were also summoned to attend the meeting.

“It is a big challenge for us, and we are trying our best to contain these criminal activities. For instance, we are installing polypropylene nets in the three jails to ensure that aides of criminals do not throw any items inside the jail. We have deployed Quick Response Team with six to eight staff to combat gang rivalry. There are officers from Tamil Nadu Special Police (TSP), CRPF, ITBP and staff from the Delhi jail cadre. The Assistant Superintendent of the Jail will supervise this. The team will continuously monitor the inmates. They will ensure that weapons are not used inside the jail. We are also procuring chilli spray and some electric shock equipment for the QRT to protect the inmates from being harmed by others,” states Arvind Kumar, PRO of Tihar Jail. 

Kumar contends that one of the major challenges in tackling crime is the increasing population of prisoners in Tihar. “The current jail population is around 20,500 inmates, whereas the sanctioned strength is approximately 10,500. Ninety per cent of the inmates are undertrials, and only 10 per cent of them are convicts. We have to produce approximately 10 per cent of the population in the court daily. This is very challenging,” says Kumar.

Tihar Jail is today overcrowded and understaffed. The congested jail should be a wake-up call to both the executive and the judiciary. According to the government, between 2016 and 2021, the number of convicts in jails across India has reduced by 9.5 per cent, while the number of undertrial prisoners has increased by 45.8 per cent. Three out of four prisoners in the country are today undertrials. Nearly five crore cases are pending in courts across the country. Lakhs of undertrials are still languishing in various jails in the country, waiting for their cases to be heard. Statistics indicate that a staggering 77 per cent of the entire prison population in India is made up of undertrials. In Tihar alone, as narrated by the jail PRO, 90 per cent of the inmates are undertrials. SS Pandey, a criminal advocate with the Supreme Court, states that judicial reforms are key to resolving Tihar’s problems.

“Judicial reforms are absolutely essential. The jail is a hotbed of criminal activity because it is overcrowded and understaffed. A bulk of the population in Tihar comprises undertrials. If the cases of undertrials are heard and disposed of, then the population of undertrials will get reduced. We need speedy disposal of cases. Judicial reforms are a must to resolve this issue,” says Pandey.

Pandey adds that apart from judicial reforms, Tihar must focus on bringing the staff and officers to account whenever there are instances of gross human rights violations or illicit activities. “Jail is supposed to be the safest place because it is under the camera glare and round-the-clock security. The main problem is the indifference of the jail administration. Even before Tajpuriya’s murder, in another gang war, gangster Prince Tewatia, a close associate of jailed gangster Lawrence Bishnoi was murdered in Tihar Jail in April. So, gang wars are very much known to the authorities, but surprisingly, the authorities cannot foresee or contain them. It needs to be seen whether these instances are cases of culpable negligence, indifference or a case of complicity where the jail authorities are also involved.” 

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These gang wars and incidents of violence are not new to Tihar. Tariq Salam, a former Superintendent of Tihar, says gang rivalry and gang culture dominance are critical issues plaguing the jail. Many notorious gangs have established their powerful presence within the prison, which are the major causes of violent clashes. “Gang rivalries have been going on in Tihar for a very long time. The situation was so bad that during my tenure, we used to try our best to ensure that these rivals were not placed in the same ward. We always used to keep informers who would tell us in advance about internal rivalries. We can’t just depend only on our staff. Informers are extremely important to contain such violent clashes,” asserts Salam. 

Salam adds that another big challenge for the administration is the presence of weapons made illegally within the jail. This highlights a serious security concern and raises questions about the effectiveness of measures to prevent such incidents. “These are not just weapons that are smuggled inside. The prisoners grab any piece of iron or blunt materials they can get hold of and then rub it on stone and turn it into a weapon. So, these weapons are made inside the jail. During my tenure, I have also seen prisoners hide materials inside their slippers with multilayered soles. Not just weapons, we have even seen mobiles being smuggled through body cavities. We have seen inmates hide small mobiles in their anal cavity.”

In the past, there have been several instances when weapons were smuggled into the prison with the involvement of the prison staff and corrupt officials. Inadequate search and screening procedures, both for visitors and incoming supplies, have resulted in incidents of weapons being smuggled into the jail premises. 

Sanjeev Kumar, ex IAS Officer who served his sentence in Tihar Jail for nearly ten years, was a victim of violent physical attacks inside the prison. “I have spent ten years in Tihar, and during those most difficult years, I have witnessed several illegal activities, and I was shocked by the utter lawlessness in Tihar. During my sentence, I was attacked twice physically, and it is a matter of record that once I was hit on my head. The idea was to smash my skull, and the second time, I was attacked with a surgical blade. I have the marks on my shoulders, even today.”

Tihar Jail administration, for years, has not been able to end the power struggles and territorial disputes among the gangs. The administration’s failure to effectively separate dangerous inmates from the general population has also increased the prevalence of violent clashes. 

Subodh Markandeya, a senior lawyer and judicial activist, was appointed by the Supreme Court as an amicus curiae in the “Tihar Jail Enquiry” in 1985. Markandeya’s report speaks about shocking violence and human rights violations within the jail. Markandeya says he witnessed an incident where children were provided to inmates for homosexual abuse. “A hardened criminal was housed in the prison, and he was provided with two young boys for homosexual abuse. I found this myself when I went there for a visit. I saw the two young boys with my own eyes. Even the district judge was taken aback. But it is so concerning that so many decades have passed since I submitted my report, but the condition of this jail today has only gone from bad to worse.”

Speedy disposal of cases is a significant aspect of judicial reforms. If the Indian judiciary expedites the judicial process to ensure timely justice delivery, this will have a ripple effect and inevitably lead to jail reforms and reduce crime in jails. Bringing judicial reforms is often a long and complex process but ultimately effective. The problems in Tihar jail cannot be resolved through a quick-fix solution. It needs concerted efforts from the executive, legislature, judiciary and all key stakeholders.

(With additional inputs from Sourabh Kumar and Pragynesh)