The major problem with the prison system in Nepal is pretty straightforward: overcrowding. While the total combined capacity of prisons in Nepal is 7,000, at present they pack in over 14,000 inmates. And this is not a new problem. Concerns over overcrowded prisons were being expressed as early as 1948 when a commission chaired by Subarna Shamsher JBR recommended more physical infrastructure to accommodate the rising prison population. Since then, a dozen commissions and taskforces set up for prison reform have made recommendations along similar lines, and there have been some upgrading of prison facilities at various times, but almost always the efforts have been too little too late.
Most prisons across the country are dilapidated, devoid of even basic facilities and house up to six times more inmates than their capacity. The situation is so bad that there isn’t enough space for prisoners to lie down during the night. Every morning, hundreds line up outside a handful of toilets. The cells are dirty and infested with bugs. It is true that prisons are supposed to be ‘correctional facilities’ for criminals. But given the pathetic state of Nepali prisons, inmates are likely to come out in worse shape than they entered. It also gives them an added incentive to escape.
The police have attributed the recent jailbreak in Jhumka (in which 12 hardcore prisoners escaped the district prison by digging a tunnel under their cell) to negligence of security personnel and administrative staff. They were countering the Jhumka jailer’s claim that the incident took place because of overcrowding. But it is hard to fault inmates for trying to escape the hellish conditions in which they are being forced to live in. A US federal government report on the state of overcrowded US prisons earlier this year states that overcrowding contributes “to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff.” The report points out how confining prisoners compromises their privacy, which makes them likely to lash out at other inmates or prison officials. To put things into perspective, around 72 percent of male and 70 percent female prisoners suffer from two or more mental health disorders at the time of their incarceration.
The problem is not just with prisons in remote regions. For instance, the Central Jail in Kathmandu with the capacity for 1,200 inmates houses around 2,300, while Dillibazar and Nakkhu prisons built for 180 and 150 inmates have been accommodating 521 and 600 inmates respectively. If immediate steps are not taken to provide more space for these prisoners and to improve their living conditions, they are bound to rebel. Recently, inmates of Baglung Jail threatened a slew of protest programs if their demand for more space and basic amenities were not met.
Similar protests have been held at various times in prisons across the country. As the country’s dilapidated prisons get more and more overcrowded, incidents of jailbreaks like the one in Jhumka are also likely to increase, thereby posing a serious law and order problem. Yes, it is important to restrict certain freedoms of criminals to make them less liable to commit crimes in the future, but denying them even basic rights like good night’s sleep and their right to privacy in certain matters won’t just be counterproductive but inhumane