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Analyzing Indian Prison Reforms vis-a-vis their Ground Reality and Ameliorative Measures

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Source : Arkansas Public Policy Panel

This article has been authored by Pratyush Pandey, a Third year Student of Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab

It is not the prisoners that need reformation. It is the prisons.

- Oscar Wilde

With these lines Wilde, the Irish Poet, quite evidently, averred the Reformative Theory of Punishment. This theory, in a gist, aims at reformation, rehabilitation, and the overall transformation of a prisoner into law-abiding citizens. Prisons, for that matter, are pivotal institutions aimed at the materialization of this aim of reformation. But the question is, "To what degree has this materialized, actually, particularly within India?" In this article, we will delve into the matter of the factual data, available, and try answering this question. The Article, therefore, aims at analyzing prison reforms in India and enunciating its importance for the Indian Prison System.

The History of the Prison System in India

Prisons - as a sophisticated institution of self-introspection and reformation - have existed in India ever since the Ancient records of Brihaspati, from 6th BCE. With the advent of Medieval Mughal Rule, Prison and Punishment has incorporated "deterrence", as an objective, resulting in rigorous punishments and torture. Followed by the Modern Colonial Rule, it paved the foundation and marked the overhaul of the pre-dated-deterrence-aimed Prison System. It was during this period that the Indian Prison System witnessed the radical change from "deterrence" to "rehabilitation", once again, which was further concretized by the enactment of criminal laws like IPC. Establishment of the Prison Enquiry Committee in 1836 and the appointment of Inspector General of Prisoners in 1855, are a few landmark events which, to a large extent, laid the foundation of Contemporary Indian Prison System. It was also during this period that the term Prison was, for the first time, defined in the Prison Act, 1894. Section 3 (1) of the Act expounded Prison as any place used to detain prisoners, as per government orders. However, with modernity, the definition lost its effectivity and feasibility. Therefore, the definition now is largely-based upon the court's dictum and is generally averred as an institution of redemptionary experience with the incorporation of correctional processes.

Timeline of Prison Reforms in India

As discussed already, the provenance of the Modern-day Prisons System dates back to the 1830s, Lord Macaulay's period. But up until 1864, there was nothing "reformatory" in the System. Moreover, the emphasis was on the rigorousness of punishment, and banishment of needs and reforms. However, by 1864 "rigorousness" started transitioning into "rehabilitation" when the 2nd Commission of Inquiry into Jail Management and Discipline Committees recommended improvement in accommodation, dietary needs, and medical requirements in Prisons. Followed by the Indian Jail Reform Committee of 1919, the report, for the first time, recommended the transition to "reformatory" objective in Indian Prison System. The Committee, therefore, recommended a cap on occupancy and maintenance of an overall rehabilitative environment. Following it, the Jail Reform Committee of 1946 further averred reformations in prisons; endorsing Minor-Offender privileges, employment of scientific classification of the offender, and construction of Modern Jails. All this eventually led to the appointment of the All India Jail Manual Committee in 1957; which aimed at preparing the Indian Prison Manual. It was on the Committee’s recommendation that the prisons, from the 1950s, were made aimed at the psychological and psychiatric rehabilitation of its inhabitants.

Following these recommendations, came the All Indian Jail Reform Committee of 1980-83 (also known as Mulla Committee, after Chairman Anand Mulla J.), which was undoubtedly modern India's most prolific Reform Committee. It recommended the establishment of the National Prison Commission, and, for the first time, addressed the miseries of Juvenile Offenders. The Committee uproariously endorsed the humanization, sensitization, and accrual of fundamental human rights to Prisoners. Further, it particularly emphasized the State's duty for Prison Reforms and asked for substantial funds to be allotted for the same. It thus laid the foundation of the Modern Prison System and it is to date that the States heed by its recommendations.

The Ground-Reality of Prison Reforms

Now as we amble forth, it is quite evident that we have a plethora of sound rules, regulations, and recommendations that have recurringly highlighted the importance of Reforms in Prisons to uphold the rehabilitative-spirit of the Prison System. But, once again, the question here is,

How well, and often, are the abstract rules implemented in the practical scenario of prisons

To substantiate upon this and break-through the ground reality we shall take into consideration two most significant reports, namely, the Prison Statistics Report, 2018 and the India Justice Report, 2019, and the stark observations that they have made.

The Prison Statistics Report, 2018 by the Ministry of Home Affairs enunciates that 1,845 inmates died in custody in 2018, the highest number in the last 20 years. Furthermore, since 2000, the prison occupancy in India is witnessing a humongous escalation of 71%; with the women prisoners percentage of 111.7%. It further observes that this percentage increase is in concurrence to the rise in the number of undertrials, which is almost 70% of the total prison occupancy. Another deplorable observation is that the inmate to medical staff ratio, in prisons, is as low as 243:1; resulting in ineffective health care and custodial deaths. Furthermore, it highlights that over the last few years deaths in prisons are increasing at a rate, higher than the increase in the population of the prison.

Further substantiating, with the India Justice Report of 2019 that has covered the human resources and infrastructure of the Indian Justice System. It, largely-based upon the Prison Statistics India (PSI) Report 2016 of the National Crime Records Bureau, observes that the average Indian prison occupancy is 114%. Furthermore, it highlighted that 19 out of 36 States and UTs have already reached 100% occupancy. The Justice Report, much in line with Prison Statistics Report 2018, avers that the prison occupancy has increased dominantly over the last five years. For which the statistical data cogently showing an escalation of 0.5-1.5% in the number of undertrials prisoners. This increase in the numbers of undertrial prisoners, as the report suggests, is majorly because of the pendency of cases. In line with this, the report suggests that Speedy Justice has now become an insurmountable issue. Highlighting that in the total ongoing court cases, more than 20% have been pending for a period exceeding five years. It is important to note here that this percentage is only accountable for the 8-large to mid-sized states and 2 small-states, for which data was available, which is an exacerbating fact.

Further, the report also brings to light the sorry-state of Legal Aid Service; highlighting that not a single state has used the entire budget, granted by the National Legal Services Authority, for maintaining State Legal Aid Clinics. The report revealed vacancies of posts of lawyers at District Legal Services Authority which were as high as 34.8%. With regard to the number of rehabilitative and correctional staff, the situation is much grimmer. Herein 18 out of 23 states have a vacancy for this post that is above 80%. All this suffices to show that the issue lies at the very prefatory tier of our Justice System.

The report highlights that the most significant reason for this debilitated state-of-affairs is the measly expenditure of the States on Prison Reforms. It shows that out of 35 States and UTs, 16 have spent even less than Rs. 30,000 per inmate per year for their basic amenities. Moreover, out of 35 states and UTs, 15 spent even less than 90% of their annual budget on Prison Reforms. Despite the Mulla Committee's cogent recommendations that the States should accrue proper funds for Prison Reforms; the data stands upended, and in light of this we can say that the schemes of Prison Reform have only embellished the paper, and have never, substantially, materialized.

Ameliorative suggestions for Prison Reforms

It is now that we know, the importance of Prison Reforms, in India, and the present debilitative state-of-affairs; let us look into some of the most pragmatic palliative measures, Hon'ble Courts have deduced to implement and improve the Prison System of India.

1. The prison legislation should show concern for the fundamental prisoner rights, such as justice and fair treatment. Prison should not be an institution promoting harassment, inhumanity, and callous demeanour; instead, Prisoners should find it as a place to internalize, individualize, and bring up in themselves positive changes.

2. Education can play a pivotal role in the reformation of prisons. The in-prison edification, in light of this, should lay greater emphasis on vocational training of its inhabitants. It would not only lead to a transition of line-of-thought of the populace, in general, but would give the inmates better prospects to live a dignified life after their release.

3. The Hon'ble Apex Court, in one of its landmark judgment, identified and opined that: by minimizing the prison occupancy rate; by incorporating Speedy Trials; by thwarting torture and ill demeanour in Prisons; by establishing better in-prison health infrastructure; by sufficing basic amenity need of Prisoners; by impeding vices; by formulating better modes of communication in prisons; by streamlining jail visits and by looking for prospects of open-air prisons we can make a substantial leap for Prison Reforms

4. The Apex Court has also opined that to reduce the mortality rate of prisons; vulnerable prisoners should be identified and provided with necessary supervision for coping and reducing their emotional distress. Further, sensitization of people, at the helm of affairs, in prisons should be encouraged for a rooted impact.

5. A person, as soon as detained, must be provided with legal aid, through the nearest Legal Aid Committee, the cost of which should be satiated by the State. The aim of the system should be Speedy Trial, and violations of which should be reprimanded, severely. Therefore, if reform is made at the very prefatory stage of arrest, it would be a great leap for Prison Reforms in India.


With the changing perspective, prisons are no more an institution of retribution and deterrence. Instead, they are now a place for self-introspection, redemption, and reformation. India, in the contemporary phase, has major case laws like the Maneka Gandhi Case, Sunil Batra case, and a plethora of other sound judgments which have, quite firmly, established the foundation for Prison Reforms. It is time now for the administration to act smartly and swiftly; for alleviating the miseries of the thousands of the inhabitants living behind the prison walls. States must equally be responsible for their role in the Criminal Justice System. They must assess, evaluate, and take affirmative steps to safeguard the constitutional and statutory framework on the Prison System. It is, therefore, only by the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners, that, we may anticipate something substantial and this, in a gist, should be the aim of the Indian Prison Reformatory Scheme.

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