Reforming Nepal’s prison system

-This article was originally published in The Himalayan Times on June 11, 2017 by Ayushma Maharjan.

Prison overcrowding has been a growing challenge for Department of Prison Management (DoPM) in Nepal. There are currently 74 prisons that are housing 18,881 inmates against their capacity of 10,608. To address this issue, DoPM has decided to build 17 new prisons at an estimated cost of Rs. 1.677 billion. Moreover, the GoN has also bought 535 ropanies of land to build an open prison with 5000 inmates’ capacity.

Prison system has been an important aspect for keeping societies safe. However, it requires continuous regulation and supervision. Prison system needs to be able take proper care of inmates and plan for their rehabilitation and reintegration after they have served their sentences. All of this comes at a huge cost. As we look to construct 17 new jails, we should be wary of the fact that construction cost is just a small portion of running a prison system; other costs involve cost of hiring new staffers, provisioning for basic necessities of inmates, inmates’ release procedures, and many others. The question then is, is this cost worth it?

Currently, Nepal has 18,881 economically active people serving their sentences; these otherwise economic actors are not directly contributing to the economy. Instead, the burden falls on the state to ensure their survival. Taxpayers, that are the people who foot most of the bill, remain unaware of what their money is buying—the money which could have been spent on other things that could enhance the well-being of the society. From a cost-benefit perspective, incarceration could be costlier than the benefits that accrue to the society as a result of maintaining a large prison system.

One possible way, then, to reduce the cost of running a prison system is to limit the number of people who are incarcerated in the first place.

The number of prisoners in Nepal has been increasing rapidly since 2006. This could be due to tougher sentencing, lack of alternative measures to imprisonment, inadequate bail system, etc. Nepal also imprisons people for victimless crimes – actions that are considered criminal under law, however have no victim—like drugs and prostitution. Moreover, due to the inefficient criminal justice system of Nepal, many people are being kept in jails regardless of how small an offence they have committed. In 2009, only 41% of the prison population were convicted whereas, 59% were awaiting their trials. This inefficiency in our system is costing more expenditure in this unproductive sector while remaining largely unable to deter people from engaging in criminal activities.

There are plausible alternate methods that have been known to minimize both cost of jailing and crime rates. People who commit worst crimes like murder could be imprisoned whereas people who commit less serious offences could be given other types of rehabilitation like parole, open jail system, probation or cognitive behavioral therapy. Parole, open jail system or probation, where a person can work and stay with his family or return to a specified area under certain conditions and timely yet minimal supervision can be one alternative to reduce the overcrowding of prisons. Studies have shown that people who are allowed to stay at home and find jobs are less likely to recommit crimes than people who are incarcerated and have to stay with other criminals. Similarly, cognitive behavioral therapies help people avoid situations where their impulse of committing crimes becomes high.

Putting people behind bars requires the society to bear a huge economic cost. The prison system of Nepal needs to be reformed such that it reduces the state resources on which the criminals are generally dependent. Nepal could favor shorter sentencing with greater efforts of rehabilitation which is much cheaper than incarceration. There are many countermeasures which we could adopt to make our prison system more efficient and cost-effective.