Sodomy behind jail suicides

Same-sex rapes by fellow prisoners trigger most jail suicides, the National Human Rights Commission has said in a report, swivelling the spotlight to the administration of prisons and the plight of inmates.

By Imran Ahmed Siddiqui
  • Published 4.06.15

New Delhi, June 3: Same-sex rapes by fellow prisoners trigger most jail suicides, the National Human Rights Commission has said in a report, swivelling the spotlight to the administration of prisons and the plight of inmates.

While such abuses were hardly a secret to many, this is the first such official acknowledgement by a rights panel or government organisation. The study was prompted by the suicide of a suspect in the Delhi bus gang rape of December 16, 2012, in Tihar jail.

"It's really very shocking as same-sex rape, or sodomy, is one of the main reasons behind suicides in jails. This has been brought out in an extensive report prepared by the panel's fact-finding team," said former NHRC chief Justice (retired) K.G Balakrishnan.

The study was conducted during his tenure and covered cases from 2007 to 2011. A former Chief Justice of India, Balakrishnan's NHRC term ended last month.

According to the study, the average jail suicide rate of 16.9 per cent was 1.5 times the figure of 11 in the general public. 

"In interviews with inmates who were prevented from committing suicide, many of them said they had been raped or coerced for sexual favours," said the study.

The findings renew concerns voiced over the security and administration of Tihar - south Asia's largest prison that has over 13,000 inmates when its capacity is less than half the number - following gang-rape suspect Ram Singh's suicide in 2013.

The NHRC study team collected data from jails across the country, talking to inmates, prison administrators and medical staff. The report will be submitted to the Union home ministry soon.

A member of the study panel said same-sex rapes caused trauma and humiliation, leading many of those abused to kill themselves in prisons.

Other reasons behind suicides included "distrust of the authoritarian environment", isolation from family, and the "shame and dehumanising aspects of incarceration".

According to the study, the average prison population in the country was 3.76 lakh between 2007 and 2011. Based on this figure, it was found that a total of 1,411 deaths - including those from natural causes - occurred every year. Of these, 63, or 4.5 per cent, were suicides.

The panel has recommended "a suicide-resistant" prison cell, essentially involving greater surveillance, to check such incidents. It has also suggested "constructive and supportive relationships" with prison staff and more opportunities for the inmates to meet families and friends.

Suicide-awareness training is another imperative. Jail authorities should conduct a "thorough audit" to find out the probable places, areas and items that could be used for suicides, the report said. It has recommended segregation of "risk-prone" inmates, strengthening of grievance redress systems and installation of CCTVs in cells where the most vulnerable are kept.

The report blames the "government's indifference towards inmates" for the spike in suicides. "While suicide is recognised as a critical problem within the jail environment, the issue has not received comparable attention," the report said.

A related factor highlighted in the report is the lack of medical staff - which affects the way inmates are monitored. According to the report, a correlation was found between the ratio of medical staff to inmates in deaths. This emerged in a survey of prisons in the six states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Karnataka.

For example, in Karnataka jails where the ratio of medical staff to inmates was 1:448 in 2007, the number of deaths reported was 161. The deaths dipped to 57 in 2011 when the inmates' number fell to 309.

In Maharashtra, the deaths fell from 139 to 88 when the number of inmates declined from 375 to 321 in the same period.

While the study described inmates in general as a "high-risk group", it said the suicide rate among pre-trial detainees was 10 times higher than the rate for the general population; the suicide rate for sentenced prisoners was three times higher.

But it is possible, the study said, to analyse the common risk factors and create a general profile that can be used to identify situations that pose the highest risk.

According to the Union home ministry, 65 per cent of the prisoners in jails across the country were under-trials. An overwhelming majority of these people, around 95 per cent, were men.