It is said how a country treats its prisoners indicates its overall view on human rights. In Nepal, prisoners are treated in an inhuman way, often locked up in cramped spaces with little to no healthcare facilities.
The Central Jail in Sundhara, Kathmandu, is a case in point. The country’s oldest and largest prison facility has an inmate capacity of 1,500, but it is currently holding 3,448 prisoners.
Ishwori Prasad Pandey, the prison administrator, says there is no option to ease the problem of overcrowding in the facility.
“It is not just here. You find this problem in other prisons across the country,” he says.
Being the oldest prison in the country, the Central Jail lacks proper infrastructure and facilities for its inmates. The facility has its own infirmary, with a 30-bed capacity and is looked after by six medical staff, but lacks in several other areas.
Human rights activist Charan Prasai says the government and the Department of Prison Management should look into the matter and come up with a solution.
“Prisoners must have basic human rights too,” he says. “The fact is that the concerned government agencies don’t care.”
According to Prasai, Nepali society by and large does not believe in granting basic human rights to someone convicted of a crime.
“I still remember former Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai saying that prisons should not have access to good facilities because many people will want to commit crime in order to live the life of prisoners,” he says. “Our government and society have the same mindset to this day.”
A study report by the National Human Rights Commission states that the majority of prison facilities are in poor physical condition. The report has highlighted that basic utilities like lighting, bathrooms, and water are unavailable in most prisons, and prisoners frequently have to sleep on the floor and eat in filthy conditions.
Inadequate medical care is a serious problem in Nepal’s prisons. Sick inmates don’t get the attention they need on time.
The plans governments in the past came up with to reform the prison system either remain unimplemented or incomplete.
On 3 April 2014, the then government decided to move the Central Jail to Nuwakot district. The proposed prison facility with the capacity of holding 7,000 prisoners is still under construction. Another regional prison is also being built in Jhumka, Sunsari. It is said to have a holding capacity of 3,000 inmates.
It remains uncertain when these two prisons will be completed.
Nepal currently has 74 prisons across the country, two each in Kathmandu and Dang. Dhanusha, Bara, Bhaktapur, Nawalparasi (East), and Rukum (East) are the only districts that don’t have their own prisons. The total number of inmates and detainees stands at over 27,000.
The framework for general prison management is provided by the Prisons Act of 1963 and the Prisons Regulations of 1964, which have been updated as necessary to reflect evolving conditions.
“While the idea of developing prisons into correctional facilities has received increasing attention in recent years, the government has yet to fully embrace the concept,” says former Nepali Police Deputy Inspector General Hemanta Malla Thakuri. A plan to set up an open prison in Banke and convert existing prisons and correctional facilities were outlined in the budget speech for the fiscal year 2022/23. Nothing has come of the plan yet.
With the current state of Nepali prisons, Thakuri says it is impossible to provide decent living conditions to prisoners. “There are laws in place, but we have not implemented them.”
The Prisons Act states that in order to prohibit meetings and communication between male and female inmates, they must be housed in separate buildings or, if that is not possible, in separate areas of the same prison facility. Similarly, if inmates and detainees are housed in the same facility, they must be kept apart. Additionally, it is necessary to keep inmates and detainees under the age of 21 apart from those who are older.
Convicts participating in criminal and civil trials are also required to be housed in different parts of the prison. Ditto for prisoners who are unwell and those who have mental illnesses.
“With our prison facilities overwhelmed by inmates, it is difficult to follow many of these laws,” says Thakuri. “There is also the risk of inmates forming a criminal network inside the prison.”
Overcrowded prisons also pose difficulty for the authorities to keep track of the inmates. When Sundar Harijan of Banke died under a mysterious condition at Rolpa prison on 18 May last year, it was later revealed that he had been serving the time for Bijay Bikram Shah of Surkhet.
A probe committee found out that Shah, the real convict, had worked out a deal with jailers and prison guards to imprison Harijan in his stead.
In the wake of the incident, the provision of issuing inmate ID cards was introduced as part of the Prison Administration Reform Plan. However, the provision has not been fully implemented.
Rights activists say it is difficult to know the real condition of Nepali prisons, as the authorities are reluctant to allow a third-party inspection. What takes place in the confines of prison, or for that matter, in police lockup almost nearly gets out.
In 2021/22, four prisoners—Hakim Miyan, Durgesh Yadav, Bijaya Mahara, and Sambhu Sada—died while being held by the police. The NHRC is still investigating the matter.
Rights activists say immediate and short-term actions with defined action plans must be taken to improve the overall condition of the prison system.
This entails giving the cases of those who are being held pending trial priority and transforming prisons into correctional facilities by promptly fixing and maintaining deteriorating physical structures, making suitable arrangements for sewage and water, scheduling regular health checks and medication, and assigning staff members to designated positions. It’s also critical to emphasize the placement of health workers and maintain a clean prison environment.
“Little has changed when it comes to Nepal’s prison system,” says Prasai. “We have the same old facility and the same attitude of treating our prisoners. We can only hope this will change one day.”