Reforms in Indian Prison System – Backgrounds, Problems And Judicial Pronouncement


Prisonisation symbolises a system of Punishment. It helps in keeping crime under control by eliminating criminals from the society. It serves as an institution for the reformation and rehabilitation of offenders. The Constitution of India has provided the concept of ‘Prison’ along with the ‘Police and Law and Order’ in the State List of Seventh Schedule. The Central Government has no responsibility to look after the Prison administration. The Prisons in India is governed by the Prisons Act, 1894 and Prison Manual of the respective State Governments. There are around 1350 prisons in India consisted of 144 central jails, 617 sub jails, 410 district jails, 86 open jails, 41 special jails, 31 women jails and having around 478,900 prisoners.


The History of Prisons in India reflects the changes in society’s reaction to crime from time to time. A well-organised system of prisons had existed in India from the earliest times as to deter offenders from repeating crimes.

Prisons In Ancient India:

The recognized modes of punishment during the Hindu and Mughal rule in India were death sentence, hanging, whipping, flogging, branding, mutilation, starving to death and solitary confinement. During this period, greater emphasis was laid on the spiritual aspect of the life and self-introspection. Due to these modes of punishment, prisoners were subjected to ill-treatment, torture and kept under strict surveillance and control.

Prisons During British India:

The British rule acknowledged the beginning of prison reform in India. In 1836, the Government of India appointed the Prison Enquiry Committee which recommended the abolition of the practice of prisoners working on roads. In 1855, the Inspector-General of Prisons was appointed to maintain discipline among the prisoners and the prison authorities. In 1862, the second Prison Enquiry Committee worked for the insanitary conditions of prisons. It also expressed concern over the need for proper food, clothing and medical treatment of prisoners.

In 1866, the medical facilities were enhanced and better amenities were provided to the women inmates to protect them against any disease. In 1894, the Prison Act was enacted to maintain uniformity in respect to prisons in India. The Act empowered the then existing provinces to enact their own rules for the prison administration. It also classified prisoners into different categories and abolished the solitary confinement. During the period of 1907, various efforts were made to segregate juvenile offenders from adult offenders.

Indian Jail Reforms Committee 1919-1920:

The Indian Jail Reforms Committee 1919-20 was appointed and headed by Sir Alexender Cardew to recommend the prison reforms. The Committee highlighted the need for reformative approach to prison inmates and discouraged the use of corporal punishment in jails. It emphasized the utilization of productive work for prison inmates so as to earn their own living. It was also highlighted that the maximum capacity of each jail should be fixed as per its shape and size. In 1949, the Pakwasa Committee accepted the system of utilising prisoners as labour for road work and the payment of wages for their work was introduced. Further, a Model Jail was established at Lucknow in 1949 where the prisoners were made to work on handloom machines and engaged in other home industries.

Indian Prison After Independence:

The modern Indian prison system is an overall institution for the treatment and reformation of inmates which emphasized on to avail the facilities like medical aid, educational and occupational training, Community service etc. A Committee was appointed to prepare an All India Jail Manual in 1957 on the basis of the suggestions made by Dr.W.C. Reckless, a technical expert of United Nations on Crime Prevention and Treatment of Offenders, which focused on the reformative methods of probation and parole should be used to reduce the burden on prisons.  It was also added that Solitary confinement as a mode of punishment should be abolished.

In 1980, the Government of India appointed an All India Jail Reforms Committee headed by Justice A.N. Mulla. The Committee recommended setting up a National Prison Commission to bring about modernization of prisons in India.  It emphasized on the removal of the existing conflict of prison administration at the Union and State levels. It would be advisable by Mulla Committee to constitute an All India Service called the Indian Prisons and Correctional Service for recruitment of Prison officials, so that the prison staff should be properly trained into different cadres. The Committee recommended a segregation for different categories of offenders were as follow:

  • Separate prisons for undertrials.
  • Separate prisons for women.
  • Separate institutes for juveniles and young offenders.
  • Security prisons for hardened criminals.

In 1988, the National Expert Committee on Women Prisoners was appointed and headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, which recommended induction of more women police force in respect to tackle the women and child offenders. A new Section 436-A was inserted in the Code of Criminal Procedure, which provides that where an under-trail prisoner has gone under the detention for a period extending up to one-half of the maximum period of imprisonment specified for that offence, he shall be released by the Court on his personal bond with or without sureties.

The Repatriation Of Prisoners Act, 2003:

The Government of India brought out the Repatriation of Prisoners Act, 2003 with a view to providing for transfer of sentenced prisoners from India to another country or place. The Act provides that the Indian Government had to arrange the transfer of the prisoner undergoing a sentence of imprisonment under an order passed by the Criminal Court. The agreement of transfer has been mutually signed by both the countries but agreement come into force after ratification by both the countries.

Model Prison Manual, 2016:

The National Crime Records Bureau had drafted a Model Prison Manual in 2013 and 2016, which is a detailed document dealing with various issues such as custodial management, medical care, education in prisons, legal aid, vocational training, computerisation and skill development programmes etc. The Supreme Court held in Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons[1] case, to look into the aspects of jail reforms across the country and suggest measures to deal with them. The various aspects which Court mentioned were to fill up the vacancies for prison staff, preparation of manuals for prison officials and encourage open prisons.

Prison Problems

1. Overcrowding:

It is a known fact that prisons in most parts of India are overcrowded. In the case of Bhim Singh v. Union of India[2], it was suggested that overcrowding may be reduced by using the provisions of plea-bargaining, fast track Courts, Lok Adalats and production of accused before the Court directly or through video conferencing. Other methods may include by releasing on parole, extensive use of fine, civil commitment and release on probation.

2. Custodial Torture:

Torture is a tradition in many penal institutions. The prisoners who cannot afford legal representatives have been protected against torture. A victim can directly move to the Court through the writ petition for the protection of his/her fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21[3] of the Constitution of India. In the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar[4], the Supreme Court held that a procedure which does not make legal services available to victims of custodial torture or undertrials cannot be regarded as just, fair and reasonable.

Prison Reforms With Regard To Judicial Pronouncements:

1. D. Upadhyaya V. State Of Andhra Pradesh [5]:

The Supreme Court stated concern over the children living in the jail with their prisoner mother and laid down directives in respect to adequate food, shelter, medical care, clothing, education and recreational facilities for such children. It further added that in case of a child born out of a prisoner mother, his/her birthplace should not be recorded as ‘prison’ in the birth certificate.

2. Sunil Batra V. Delhi Administration [6]:

The Supreme Court held that there is need for scientific classification of prisoners based on the nature of the crime committed, age, sex, character and educational level.

3. Sheela Barse V. State Of Maharashtra [7]:

The Supreme Court stated various directives in respect to the women prisoners as they should be guarded by female guards or women constables. They should be kept separately from amle wards. It was further added that the interrogation of women prisoner should be carried in presence of the women officials.

4. State Of Gujrat V. High Court Of Gujrat [8]:

The Supreme Court held that reasonable wages should be paid to prisoners for the labour work done by them while in prison.


The object of the reforms was to protect the society from criminals, to rehabilitate offenders, to deter them and to extract retribution for criminal acts to the satisfaction of the society. The setting up of reforms was to bring a behavioural change in the prisoner’s perception in respect to the society. Criminals are creations of social conditions and therefore, they are required to be treated rather than being punished. The aim of sending criminals to prison is to transform them into honest and law-abiding citizens.


N.V.Paranjape, P. (n.d.). Criminology & Penology (including Victimology). Central Law Publications.

(2019). National Crime Records Bureau Data.

(2005). The Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act.

[1] A.I.R 2016 S.C. 993 (Para 4).

[2] Manu/SC 10786/2014.

[3] “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law”.

[4] A.I.R. 1979 S.C. 1360.

[5] A.I.R. 2006 S.C. 1946.

[6] A.I.R 1978 S.C. 1675.

[7] A.I.R 1983 S.C. 378.

[8] A.I.R 1998 S.C. 3164.

This article has been written by Vidushi Goel, 4th Year B.A. LL.B student at Amity Law School, Delhi affiliated to Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University.

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