Prison Reforms in India

Article 14 of the Constitution of India guarantees the right to equality to every citizen of India. No one is above another before the law. However, if a person does not adhere to moral societal behaviour, he may be subject to a certain amount of punishment as per the law. Imprisonment as a punishment serves the purpose of rehabilitating the offenders so that they can have a better life after their punishment ends. These offenders or wrongdoers are kept in places called prisons. India’s prison system exists since the ancient period and has been reformed ever since then. However, as the population of the country increases, along with socio-economic problems, so does the number of prisoners. Although we have come a long way from what was an inhumane prison system under the British Raj, there are several aspects which still need to be regulated under prison administration.

The Need for Reformation of Prisons

Before we discuss the reforms taken up by the Indian government for prisons and prisoners, it is important to understand the reasons for such reforms. According to World Prison Brief, India is ranked 5th when it comes to the maximum number of prisoners. The general conditions of Indian prisons are underwhelming, to a great extent. Overcrowding, lack of sanitation and cleanliness, absence of nutritious food and improper maintenance are regular sights. Social problems like discrimination, inhumane treatment, corruption and prison politics also exist. Women prisoners and juvenile delinquents are not kept separate from other prisoners and are subject to discrimination and torture by the inmates themselves. Not only the prisoners, the prison staff and personnel are also underpaid and lack in number, thus making management of such a large population difficult. Mentally ill prisoners are not taken care of and often commit suicide because of emotional and psychological disturbances. Medical care and proper treatment are not available to prisoners and they may die of certain diseases. Instead of promoting rehabilitation, prisons are seen as hell on earth. They seldom leave a person mentally stable because the prolonged effects of imprisonment are disturbing and sometimes even lethal. All these factors combine to present a horrible situation in our prison system, and it is in dire need of major reforms.

Early Attempts

The first efforts to reform prisons were made by K F Rustamji in the 1980s, when he highlighted the conditions in which the country’s prisoners were living. After the emergency period, many conscience-stricken people took to filing Public Interest Litigations in order to voice the plight of the prisoners and better their conditions. A number of judgments from landmark cases, like the Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar[1], the Sunil Batra case[2], the Maneka Gandhi case[3], the case of Bhagalpur[4], etc. came as a distress call to the prisoners.

The second wave of the same began with the recommendations of various committees like the Mullah Committee, the committee on women prisoners formed by Justice Krishna Iyer, the BPR&D committee formed after the verdict of the Supreme Court in Ramamurthy v. State of Karnataka[5] etc. All these steps together contributed towards the betterment of the prison administration in India.

However, this does not end here. Indian prisons have forever been getting prisoners and it seems like with the growth of crime in the country at such a speed, soon there will be no place left to hold the prisoners. They already are treated like cattle by the prison staff which inflicts cruelty and torture on them, and prisoners are denied their basic right to life.

Legislative Reforms

Let us have a look into what the government, including the government at the time of colonial rule, did for our prisoners.

The Prisons Act of 1894 was the first and perhaps only legislative framework of the British Raj on Indian prisoners. Prisoners back then were usually guilty of voicing their opinions against the government and being indulged in activities of insurgence and protest. But the act lacked comprehension as it failed to deliver for the rehabilitation and reformation of prisoners. This concern was taken up by the Indian Jail Reform Committee of 1919-20.

The Indian Jail Reform Committee of 1919-20 aimed to reform the Indian prisoner taking into account the conditions of prisoners around the globe. It was headed by Sir Alexander Cardew, and suggested the reform of prisoners rather than simply their deterrence. It also called for aftercare programs for prisoners so that they could adjust well in their life after their imprisonment ended. The Committee also suggested limiting the number of occupants in each prison and to provide occupational activities to all prisoners. These and many other reforms define what a comprehensive approach was taken up by the committee at that time to curb the shortcomings of the Prisons Act.

One of the most important legislative steps of the British administration was the Government of India Act of 1935. Regarding prisons, it transferred the subject of prisons from the center to the provinces, so that the states or provinces could work on their prisons according to their own procedure.

After independence, the then government of India invited the United Nations in 1951 to work on their prison system and provide suitable reforms for the same. The outcome of this study was the report on Jail Administration in India, also known as the Reckless Report of 1951. It stuck to completely transforming the prisons into rehabilitation centers and emphasized the refreshing of outdated records.

When it comes to international law, there exist a number of regulations which advocate for the improvement of prisoners all around the world.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, lays down the principles of justice, including the rights to life, liberty, security, and to be protected against illegal arrest and detention as well as inhumane and cruel behavior. These are the very basic of rights that should, at all costs, be accessible to any person regardless of whether he or she is a prisoner.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1979, protects the rights of prisoners, and it is incumbent upon the countries to incorporate the regulations into their domestic law.

The UN Standard Minimum Rules is another example wherein certain groups of prisoners have been given protection and security.

Still, one can say that the subject of prisoners and prison administration is not taken up or talked about much in India.

Later Stages

The government of India appointed an All India Jail Manual Committee in 1957 to execute a model prison manual which spoke on matters related to administration, juvenile offenders, probation, reformatory schools and borstal homes, remand homes, etc. It also advised regulating the age-old Prisons Act of 1894 so that it could be in consonance with the contemporary conditions. The Model Prison Manual of 1960, which was the report submitted by the committee, is a commendable job upon which the present prison system of India rests.

The provisions of the Model Prison Manual led the Ministry of Home Affairs to appoint a Working Group of Prisons in 1972. The Working Group submitted its report in 1973 and recommended a National Policy for the prisons of India. Some of its salient features were:

  • To use alternative methods of punishment instead of imprisonment
  • To properly train the prison personnel and better their services
  • To treat the offenders scientifically and provide for aftercare programs
  • To include certain topics of prisons into Five Year Plans
  • To amend the Constitution in order to put the subject of prisons in the Concurrent List, so that both states and the centre can govern the system efficiently.

Further, the Mulla Committee, formed in 1980, suggested in its report of 1983 the setting up of a National Prison Commission as a regulatory body for prisons. It also stated the need to separate juvenile offenders and also of mentally unstable prisoners. Some of its main objectives were:

  • To improve food quality in prisons, as well as sanitation, ventilation, etc.
  • To constitute an Indian Prisons and Correctional Service for recruitment of prison representatives
  • To provide for aftercare and rehabilitation services
  • To give media and the general public access to prisons and collect information on the system
  • To provide adequate funding and resources to the system by the government.

All in all, it can be said that although abundant reforms have been initiated, the implementation of the same remains diminished.

Constitutional Provisions

The Constitution of India guarantees the right to life and liberty under Article 21. This right is expanded to cover various other rights such as the right to health care and medical treatment, and the right to a speedy and just trial. Prisoners are to be paid reasonable wages for the vocational activities that they perform while under imprisonment, according to Article 23 of the Constitution. Article 39A of the Constitution, under the Directive Principles of State Policy, put a duty on the State to provide free legal aid to prisoners guilty of criminal offences whether under imprisonment or not, who are unable to afford it themselves.

Conclusion: The current situation

According to the 2019 statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau, there are about 1350 prisons in India that are functioning presently, and they house more than 4.5 lakh prisoners. Mathematically, the prison strength for an average prison would be 118.5%. More than 50% of these prisoners were under-trial prisoners. The major problems are overcrowding, lack of staff and funds.

Initiatives like open prisons, borstal schools, rehabilitation centres and aftercare programs should be encouraged so that imprisonment does not become dreadful for the inmates. The aspect of mental health and the effect imprisonment and especially solitary confinement has on the prisoner should not be ignored. Prisoners should be allowed to meet their family and friends, and engage with their lawyers without any interference from the prison staff. The prison staff should be paid well and should be punished for inhumane or cruel treatment with the prison inmates. Care should be taken about the physical health of the prisoners and medical aid should be provided wherever needed.

There is a long list of reforms if we begin to analyze what can be done to reduce the plight of prisoners in our country. However, mere words existing in papers would not bring any change. It is the implementation that needs to be made stricter, and it is the government only that can do it. Other organisations such as the National Human Rights Commission, NGOs and NPOs should also lend a hand in modernising the present prison system of India. Prison politics should be reduced as much as possible and no prisoner should gain any undue advantage just because of his or her political background or connections.

[1] (1979) AIR SC 1360.

[2] (1978) AIR SC 1675.

[3] (1978) AIR SC 597.

[4] (1981) AIR SC 928.

[5] (1997) SCC (Cri) 386.

Zara Suhail Ahmed

Zahra is a student at Aligarh Muslim University, pursuing a 5-year B.A. LLB course. Currently in her 4th year, Zahra opted for Law after completing most part of her schooling from Cambridge School, New Delhi. Zahra has interned under a few lawyers and firms, participated in various moot courts and similar events, and is proficient in research and written content. A strong believer that education is the greatest virtue, Zahra seeks to learn from every platform and individual, whether working alone or as a team. Although Zahra is keenly interested to pursue ADR (Alternate Dispute Resolution) as a career, she has kept her options open and is interested in examining the different career prospects that her profession has to offer. Zahra has diversified interests apart from her professional life as well. Not only a successful lawyer, but she also aspires to become a productive human being.