India is one of the youngest democracies in the world. Our patterns of judiciary, legislation and their relationship to the built environment remain relatively obscure. But in 2021, with the abolitionist movement gaining traction all over the world, and prison reform and safety being the foci of city design, we must evaluate this issue through the lens of Indian urbanism. India reports the lowest conviction rates and yet our prisons and judiciary are constantly overburdened and justice is often not only delayed but denied. Overcrowding, prolonged detention of under-trial prisoners, unsatisfactory living conditions, custodial deaths, lack of treatment programmes and allegations of indifferent and even inhuman approach of prison staff have repeatedly attracted the attention of the critics over the years. 
Life sentences make up only 1-2% of convictions, so it is given that most people entering the system of incarceration will re-enter society. Our current prisons in no way prepare our inmates for a life of normalcy post-incarceration. Prisons or jails in India, are statistically more susceptible to instances of venality and corruption. Moreover, these establishments often replicate the narratives of discrimination that exist in society. Prisons become hotbeds for communal, gendered, sexual and caste-based violence. These situations are harmful to not just inmates but also the personnel working within these structures. We as a society have more than enough proof that the Indian prison system has failed the citizens, convicts, victims and humanity at large; and while it is important to note that this issue is much larger than architecture and planning, we as designers of the built environment have the ability to impact a part of this change.
It is impossible to think of incarceration in India without thinking of the massive Tihar Jail Complex in New Delhi. Despite a sanctioned capacity of 10,026, Tihar was home to 17,534 inmates as of 2018. These numbers have continued to grow at an annual rate of nearly 12%. As reported by the Human Rights Watch, prison barracks are so overcrowded that inmates have to sleep in shifts. Tihar also reports a disproportionately high fraction of HIV positive inmates and diseases caused by poor sanitation. (Image A) Hundreds of inmates tested positive for covid-19 within Tihar, with about a dozen fatalities, a few of which were under trial. Inmates’ access to vaccines still remains a contested issue.
Image A. Condition of Tihar Jail
Our nation’s capital consistently reports the highest rates of heinous crime. Many authors have explored the reasons for the astounding statistics. The answer lies largely in the demography of the city. Delhi is one of the most populated cities in the country, people migrate from all over the country to Delhi in the hopes of a better future. Often unable to achieve this future due to the broken systems of employment and excess population, these citizens end up taking to a life of criminal activity simply to make ends meet. Another major proponent of crime has been identified as the literacy rate. The inability to qualify for skilled work often also leads to life within the judicial system. But it is important to ask ourselves, as planners, what role the city plays, when it comes to criminal activity. Does it encourage it? Does it allow violence to perpetuate? If so, what can we do?
The first step of proposing a solution to this issue is analyzing the existing circumstances. The basis for this research is data collected from 167 police stations all over New Delhi regarding the total number of crimes reported to the stations over the course of one year, the specific nature of these crimes, the number of police personnel stationed and deployed and the area of the jurisdiction. Using this data we can determine the sites where intervention is most required, and where it would be most effective. The illustrations are a result of processing this data through different Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and mapping the results. GIS can also help us determine the proponents of crime specific to a region, such as the demographic composition and mobility.
Image B. Police Stations in New Delhi Image C. Voronoi Cells
Image D. Frequency of crime per jurisdiction
(Image B) illustrates the locations of police stations distributed all over the wards of New Delhi. Using the data collected we can determine the jurisdictions of these stations (Central, Eastern, New Delhi, Northern, South-Eastern and South-Western). However, in times of crisis, the accessibility to a site of criminal activity or response time determines which station is to respond or be approached. Hence, we need to analyse the data according to the time taken by each police station to reach the site. We can do this using the Voronoi tessellation in the second illustration (Image C). In mathematics, a Voronoi diagram is a partition of a plane into regions close to each of a given set of objects. This means that all points located within an individual cell in New Delhi, are closer to the police station associated with that cell than they are to any other police station. Further, using the data associated with each police station we can classify these cells according to the frequency of crime reported at each station (Image D). The lowest crime reports came from the Vasant Kunj/Vasant Vihar regions of New Delhi (62-79 incidents reported annually) whereas the Western regions of Delhi reported far higher cases (1180-1433 incidents reported annually), in districts like Punjabi Bagh and Uttam Nagar.
Image E. Isochrones of 4 possible sites of intervention
Image F. Statistical Information
Source: Census 2011, Diagrams by Author
On further inspection, we can understand that these districts most susceptible to crime are also the ones that would be the most responsive to intervention. (Image E) shows the connectivity of these four regions to each other, as well as over Delhi. The drive-time polygons with catchments areas of 15, 30 and 60 minutes demonstrate how these sites are some of the most accessible locations in Delhi, well integrated into the existing road and metro networks, making them optimum locations. Their demographic compositions are also illustrated, and the commonalities observed are further testament to the fact that these districts can serve as precedents for interventions all over Delhi if developed successfully.
These findings can be examined in two parts by urban planners – first, by establishing a contextual frame of reference for understanding the specific proponents of crime plaguing these 4 districts in particular, and the second, proposing a solution that would not only bring about a new architectural typology but alter the urban fabric of these localities in a way that would result in the reduction of the projected crime risk, as well as current propensity.
The first solution is to understand the global proponents of crime in the region. Obvious factors include the lack of basic infrastructure such as adequate space, lighting and facilities to report the crime. In terms of physical infrastructure, well-lit streets, footpaths, free and safe to use toilets play an integral role in making a city safer. Compounding this issue is a lack of safe social infrastructure: no housing, homes, public childcare facilities or opportunities for education and skill development. And finally, the lack of access to institutional infrastructure, public hospitals and reproductive health facilities, legal aid centres and one-stop crisis centres. These problems just reiterate the fact that the problem of unsustainable carcerality is not limited to, but certainly deeply entrenched in the issues of the built environment.
The second of this two-part solution to crime in Delhi is thinking of an alternative to the current system of prisons. There is a need for a new typology to be realized – one that focuses on the reduction of crime rate and risk, and not just retributive justice. There is evidence to support the benefits of a “hyperlocal” decentralised reform network, vis-a-vis a large, central prison complex. These new models of justice can be embedded into the already existing schools, communities and neighbourhoods.
Image G. Restorative Justice Center in Oakland
Image H. Nyaay Panchayat in Uttar Pradesh
The physical attributes of this structure can facilitate the process of reintegration into society of the convict. While there are examples of similar Restorative Justice Centres in the West, (Image F) no such systems exist in urban India. Rural India, on the other hand, has been demonstrating the concept of restorative justice through Nyay Panchayats. Through these Nyaay Panchayats or Gram Nyaayalays, community-based mediations often lead to solutions that uphold the civil liberties of all parties involved. (Image G) Our cities do not have any such domestic legal framework, which is both the cause and the consequence of our lack of infrastructure to support this intervention. The actualization of the architecture of such a model needs to go hand in hand with strides in policy, public participation and human rights advocacy. Starting with smaller community-level interventions can not only reduce the burden on the justice system, reserving the larger mechanisms for more serious offences but can also expedite the process of convict societal reintegration. To some, this idea may seem utopian, but our collective faith and efforts towards a better world are what makes change possible.
- Correspondent, D. (2017, December 01). Tihar inmate abuse case: HC tells cops to register FIR against staff. Retrieved from https://www.dnaindia.com/delhi/report-tihar-inmate-abuse-case-hc-tells-cops-to-register-fir-against-staff-2563797Owen
- B., Wells, J., & Pollock, J. (2017). Prison Community, Prison Conditions, and Gendered Harm. In Search of Safety. doi:10.1525/california/9780520288713.003.000
- Seventh Tihar prisoner succumbs to Covid-19. (2021, May 25). Retrieved from https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/others/seventh-tihar-prisoner-succumbs-to-covid19-101621969930936.html
- TheHarvardGSD. (2019, November 06). Black in Design. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPlZK-Ymn3A&list=PLqxr4aBubkPZV0QhospahIbxwFiIWJdCb&index=7
- Tihar Jail. (2021, June 13). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tihar_Jail#cite_note-dept-1
न्यायालयों का बोझ कम करने और लाखों लोगों को त्वरित न्याय देने में नजीर बन सकती हैं न्याय पंचायतें (2018, March 15). Retrieved from https://gshindi.com/indian-polity/nayay-panchayat-and-justice