It is necessary to approach substance abuse as a public health issue in correctional facilities and those addicted need access to rehabilitation and treatment so that drug abuse is not further exacerbated in Punjab’s prisons (FATC volume, pg. 85).
What were you looking for?
Through secondary data collection and analysis, I explored statistical data about substance use in Punjab’s prisons.
Why is this important?
Punjab, the land of 5 rivers, once revered as an economic leader in the country is often touted as ‘Udta Punjab’, a state where much of the population is seen as ‘flying high’ under the influence of drugs. Although there is a beaming spotlight underpinned by prejudice on the topic of drug use in Punjab, this nationwide attention has not culminated in any concrete policy changes to help those battling substance use, especially for people who are often deemed invisible by larger society. Despite criminalizing substance possession, consumption, and sale of drugs through The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS Act) of 1985, Punjab’s prisoners continue to be addicted inside correctional facilities, with many overdose deaths each year (Singhal et. al, 2018). The punitive approach utilized by the government has failed to lower crime rates for drug offences in Punjab, rather those struggling with substance abuse have continue to be incarcerated. It is necessary to approach substance abuse as a public health issue in correctional facilities and those addicted need access to rehabilitation and treatment so that drug abuse is not further exacerbated in Punjab’s prisons (Singhal et. al, 2018, pg. 85).
In July 2022, the Punjab government launched a drug screening survey with the aim to collect pertinent data to diagnose drug abuse among inmates (India Express, 2022). This project was spearheaded by the Minister of Punjab’s Jails, Mr. Harjot Singh Bains. The intended purpose of this pilot project was to quantify the drug use issue prevalent among inmates and identify inmates who are not undergoing treatment within the de-addiction facilities established within the prison system (Indian Express, 2022). Approximately 30,000 inmates in Punjab’s prisons were part of the survey and the results illustrated a quantifiable image of concern. It was revealed that over 47 percent of the inmates surveyed were addiction to substances (Bukhtiyar, 2022).
Although this survey has helped in identifying inmates struggling with substance abuse, this initiative is underpinned by retributive notions of justice and accountability – which completely overlooks the public health crisis at hand. As announced by the Punjab Jails Minister, once inmates have been found consuming illegal substances through the survey, a First Information Report (FIR) will be filed against them which will enforce section 64A of the NDPS Act, subjecting them to a formal investigation and prosecution (Indian Express, 2022). From the perspective of the Minister, he believes this punitive measure will eventually aid in the rehabilitative process of inmates. This survey launched by the State does nothing to change the status quo but rather just continues to stigmatize and criminalize addiction within a correctional facility. Such carceral measures are only proving to be deadly for the people of Punjab. The Indian Express reported that in 2014 and 2015, 174 inmates struggling with substance abuse died of overdose in prisons (Gopal et. al, 2016). This paints a harrowing picture and demonstrates that at least 1 inmate died every four days during 2014 and 2015 (Gopal et. al, 2016). It is important to note that the accuracy of these figures is dependent upon the State’s health records and there remains a possibility that the death toll could be much higher as there has often been a refusal to record drug deaths as a matter of policy (Asian Centre of Human Rights, 2018). It is evident that the need for a policy and narrative shift around drugs and addiction is dire. The State government offers de-addiction treatments and services on paper but the type and quality of care provided must be examined in depth to see if current rehabilitative measures are meaningfully tackling the substance abuse issue and providing life-saving care.
Often times, the ‘war on drugs’ narrative adopted and perpetuated by the State does little to contribute to the maintenance of a just, peaceful, and safe community. In fact, this narrative wholly overlooks the importance of rehabilitation and treatment from a harm reduction approach. The police and prosecution have failed those struggling with substance abuse as addiction continues to be viewed as a moral failing. Reducing citizens to a number in prison and penalizing them for addiction worsens drug abuse and ultimately, inhibits rehabilitation. The war on drugs must come to a ceasefire because too many casualties have been lost. It is time for Punjab’s criminal justice system to not just fight crime, but also illness.