Three in four prisoners in India’s jails are under trial, according to government data for the year 2020, the latest year for which such data is available. This is the highest share of undertrial detainees in prison since at least 1995, the earliest year for which such data is available. While the total number of prison inmates rose 1% from the previous year, the number of undertrial inmates increased by nearly 12%, according to the Prison Statistics India 2020 report.

Over half the undertrial inmates were in district jails, which are overcrowded: an average district jail runs at an occupancy rate of 136%.

The release of undertrials declined by 19.6% in 2020, compared to 2019. Some of the reasons for release from prison include acquittal, release on bail, release on appeal, transfer, extradition and other releases during the course of the year. There is a lack of awareness among undertrials about parole and bail rules, IndiaSpend reported in September 2020.​​

For instance, in 2020, only one-third of inmates who are eligible for early release under section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure – which provides for the release of undertrials who have undergone more than half the prison term for the accused offences – were actually released.

The share of inmates belonging to marginalised communities did not reduce. Two in three undertrial inmates belonged to either Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe or Other Backward Classes in 2020 as well. People from these communities are vulnerable to illegal detentions, false confessional statements and arrests and they often have no means to seek bail, our September 2020 report found.

Undertrial inmates

The number of convicts in prisons fell by 22% in 2020, compared to the previous year, while the number of undertrial inmates increased by 12%. As a result, undertrials now comprise 76% of inmates in 2020, up from 69% in 2019. The share of undertrial inmates has not exceeded 75% since 1998, when the National Crime Records Bureau reports are available.

In states with over 10,000 prisoners, the share of undertrials increased the most in Punjab (19 percentage points) and Haryana (17 percentage points).

Further, 4% of undertrials (15,167) were women, up by 12% from 13,550 in 2019.

Delhi and J&K

Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir reported the highest share of undertrial inmates of the total prison inmates, followed by Bihar, Punjab and Odisha and Maharashtra. Of these, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, Bihar and Maharashtra also reported an occupancy rate of over 100%.

Marginalised caste groups

Two in three prisoners under trial belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or Other Backward Class groups, data show. Two in five undertrial inmates were educated below Class 10 and more than a quarter were illiterate. Caste prejudices and over-policing of certain communities are important social factors behind the significant presence of marginalised caste groups in jails, our September 2020 report had found.

Release of undertrials

In 2020, there were 1,291 undertrial prisoners who had been in jail for a period of more than half the sentence for the accused offences cumulatively. Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure allows for the release of are eligible for release on personal bond. However, only 442 such prisoners (34%) were released in 2020.

There was an 18% decrease in the number of prisoners released on bail as well, from about 15 lakh in 2019 to 12 lakh.

Imprisoned for years

Nearly 2% of the undertrials in 2020 had spent over five years in confinement, up from 1.5% in 2019. Overall, 29% of all the undertrials had spent over a year in prison.

Of the states which had over 10,000 inmates, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Punjab are the only states where over 80% of the undertrials had spent less than a year in prison. Maharashtra had the highest percentage of undertrials in confinement for over a year (40%) followed by Gujarat (36%).

Young inmates

Among the undertrial inmates, 49% are between 18 years and 30 years of age, but among convicts, only 29% fall in this age group. Further, 50% of the convicts are aged between 30 years and 50 years. Of the larger states/ Union Territories with over 10,000 inmates, Delhi has the highest population share of undertrials under the age of 30 (64.3%), but only 33% of the convicts are under 30 years of age. It is followed by Chhattisgarh (61.5%) and Karnataka (57.9%).

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.