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  • Writer's pictureIRALR


This Article has been authored by Harshitha Ulphas, a student at Christ University, Bangalore.


Prison reforms can be understood as attempts to improve conditions inside the prisons, and also finding alternatives to incarceration. It also focuses on rehabilitation of those who have been directly or indirectly affected by the crime.

In present times, while conversations have been initiated around making public places and living places in general, clean and safe for civilians, the same hasn’t translated very well in prisons. While civilians have guaranteed fundamental and legal rights that ensure clean and safe environment which are also granted to the prisoners, as later discussed in the article, but those rights are not equally protected for the two groups, which results in difficulty in reinstatement and rehabilitation of those affected by crime and its consequences.

This article is going to deal with the reasoning behind introduction of prisons in the society, its historical background and how it led the way to potential prison reforms, rights of prisoners and how they are neglected and how honoring these rights is the way forward for prison reforms in modern terms.

Concept of prisons

The Online Oxford English dictionary defines prison as, “A building to which people are legally committed as a punishment for a crime or while awaiting trial.” In India. ‘Prisons’ fall under the State Subject, and are included in List II of the Seventh Schedule to the Indian Constitution.

The State Governments are entrusted with the responsibility to deal with the administration of prisons, and they do so in accordance with the Prisons Act, 1894 and the Prison Manual of the respective State Governments. Therefore, it is the states that have the primary authority and responsibility to change the present prison laws, rules and regulations.

The concept of prisons is a superannuated wonder since the Vedic Period, wherein people considered anti- social or counter- social were held captive, to ensure security of the general public against wrongdoings.

While today, the purpose of prisons should be more than just custodial and coercive, to ensure that the orders of the court, and laws laid down are abided by the people, the purpose still continues to be more coercive and obtruding, rather than being correctional and rehabilitating in nature.

With respect to this, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, a former Supreme Court judge credited with reforming the criminal justice system, had once said, “In our world, prisons are still laboratories of torture, warehouses in which human commodities are sadistically kept and where spectrums of inmates range from driftwood juveniles to heroic dissenters.

Historical Background

The prisons in India began in 1835, as a result of ideas by T B Macaulay, and to pursue the same further, a Prison Delegated committee was set up in 1838, to ensure thoroughness of treatment while dismissing every single philanthropic need and changes for the prisoners. Central Prisons were developed from 1846, following the suggestions and recommendations made by the Macaulay Committee.

In the year 1888, the Fourth Jail Commission was set- up, which recommended consolidation of existing rules and regulation to form a Prison Bill. This was enacted in the year 1894 after the Governor General of India gave his consent for the Bill to become a Law.

The Prisons Act of 1894, though primordial, is the only framework that deals with administration and management of jails in India, and is applicable all across the country. Though the Act fails to deal with various issues, due to lack of amendments made to it, the flaws in the legislation were highlighted in the report of the Indian Jail Committee 1919-1920 pertaining to the rehabilitation and reformation of offenders, which is also considered the primary motive of a prison administrator.

The said Indian jail reform committee, appointed to suggest prison reforms was headed by Sir Alexander Cardew, and it suggested that the capacity of inmates must be fixed on the basis of the prison area. Along with this, the Committee also underlined the need of aftercare programs for the released prisoners for the purpose of rehabilitation.[i]

At present, prisons are a State subject as mentioned previously, but this wasn’t always the case, the legislative framework which resulted in the transfer of the subject of jails from the Center list to that under the control and administration of provincial governments is the Government of India Act, 1935.

The UN Assembly adopted, a document called Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment wherein the responsibility is shouldered on the state to take steps for effective judicial, legislative and administrative methods. While, it lays down the rules and instructions for interrogation and is a concrete piece of legislation, India unfortunately has yet not ratified to it.

Rights of Prisoners

Rights of all citizens are provided and safeguarded by the Indian Constitution, but when that citizen becomes an offender and/ or a prisoner, the treatment provided to them changes with respect to not safeguarding their rights. Prisoners’ rights are often denied, rejected and in fact, neglected.

While courts at many instances have declared prisoners as a natural as well as a legal person and have also shown concern towards the bias in treating prisoners, the same has not been done enough times to ensure that the prisoners’ rights are also safeguarded and also that they are not tortured and harassed while demanding justice. Honoring these rights is the key to what might be a potential prison reform, wherein civilians and prisoners are treated alike with respect to right to safe and clean environment, and prisoners while being excluded from the society are not entirely eliminated from the society such that they can never be rehabilitated.

Constitution guarantees prisoners the following rights:

1· Right to life and personal liberty- Supreme Court has widened its horizon while interpreting Article 21 of the Constitution by the inclusion of right to life with human dignity, and has explicitly stated at various occasions that even the state does have the right to violate these rights.

2· Right to health and medical treatment- Art 21 also provides for the medical care. As the same has been brought under the ambit of the article, states now have an obligation to preserve life of every citizen, even the prisoners.

3· Right to speedy trial- speedy trial as one of the essential ingredients of Article 21 of the Constitution. Delay in the disposal of cases is a denial of justice, so the Court is expected to adopt necessary steps for expeditious trial and quick disposal of cases.[ii]

4· Right to free legal aid- this is also a facet of Art 21 of the Indian Constitution which casts a duty upon a state to provide legal recourse. The State is under a constitutional mandate to provide legal redressal to the ones who are unable to afford it. With respect to this, Justice Krishna Iyer declared that “this is the State’s duty and not Government’s charity”. In cases wherein a prisoner is unable to exercise his constitutional and statutory right of appeal including Special Leave to Appeal for want of legal assistance, the Court will grant such right to him under Article 142, read with Articles 21 and 39A of the Constitution.[iii]

5· Right to reasonable wages for work- Fair and equitable wages if not paid would result in bonded labour and further would violate the fundamental right enumerated in Article 23 of the Constitution.

Legal rights of the prisoners include the right to bail, right to basic amenities, right against arbitrary prison punishment, right to leave and special leave, for which there is no particular framework, and the same varies on the basis of facts of the case.

Structural Fallacies and the way forward

While there are various issues faced by prisoners, the major issues include improper sanitation and inadequate medical facilities and custodial deaths primary reason for which according to the Prison Statistics India (PSI) 2018 reportreleased by the Ministry of home affairs is, the rise in prison population, which has in turn affected the previously discussed rights of the prisoners.

There are various changes that are required in the current legal framework, with respect to prison management, first for instance is amendments to the only existing legislation, The Prisons Act, 1894, which is almost antediluvian now. Other amendments in the framework include:

1. Providing legal aid to prisoners suffering from poverty, free of cost, this shall ensure that their rights are not compromised with. A way to do the same may be, by appointing full- time as well as part- time legal officers to represent them in court.

2. Liberalizing the bail system after looking into all the modalities, as this will not only make the process of rehabilitation easier, it will also lead to less expenditure on prisoners, in matters the bail can be granted.

3. Ensuring adherence to the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, by the investigating agencies with respect to investigation and enquiry, this will not only lead to speedy disposal of cases, but will also prevent over- crowding in prisons.

4. Providing special camp accommodation under conditions of minimum security to political agitators coming to prisons, this will help in reducing conflicts in prisons.

5. Mobilizing additional resources for modernization of prisons and development of correctional services in prison, as the archaic belief of depriving prisoners off every possible amenity isn’t a practice that will prove efficient in reform and rehabilitation.


The Prison Statistics India (PSI) 2018 report suggests that the main issues with respect to prisons in India is the increase in prison population, increase in number of undertrials, inadequate medical facilities, and therefore increase in custodial deaths. These factors combined with shortage of staff for prison administration leads to inefficiency in the proper functioning of prisons and neglect towards basic rights of the prisoners. Thus, India is in a need of a prison reform that deals with these issues effectively. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “It is not the prisoners that need reformation, it is the prisons.”

[i] Paranjape N V, Criminology & Penology with Victimology, (Sixteenth Edition, Central Law Publications, 470,479 (2014). [ii] Kadra Pahadiya v. State of Bihar, AIR 1983 SC 1167. [iii] MH Hoskot v. State of Maharashtra, (1978) 3 SCC 544.

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