Prison Reforms

“Hate the Crime and not the Criminal”-Mahatma Gandhi


The Supreme Court has constituted a three-member committee headed by Justice Amitava Roy to look into issues pertaining to jails in India and suggest reforms.

Prison or jail:Itis a facility in which individuals are forcibly confined and denied a variety of freedoms under the authority of the State as a form of punishment.


Prison is a State subject under List-II of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India. The management and administration of Prisons falls exclusively in the domain of the State Governments, and is governed by the Prisons Act, 1894 and the Prison Manuals of the respective State Governments.

Prisons in India- An overview:

In India there are following types of prisons or jail

  1. Central jail- Here prisoners are sentenced to imprisonment for more than 2 years and such jails have larger capacity in comparison to other jails.
  2. District jail- These jails serve as the main prisons in States/UTs where there are no Central Jails.
  3. Women’s Jail- It exclusively house women prisoners.
  4. Borstal School– It is youth detention centre for the imprisonment of minors or juveniles.
  1. Open jail- Here prisoners with good behaviour are housed satisfying certain norms
  2. Special Jails- It keeps offenders and prisoners who are convicted of terrorism, insurgency and violent crimes.

Prisoners:-There are following types of prisoners in India:

  1. Convict: a person found guilty of a crime and sentenced by a court.
  2. Under-trial: a person who is currently on trial in a court of law
  3. Detainee: any person held in custody.
Statistics (According to Prison Statistics India, 2015 ): 
1. Total Prison population (including pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners)419623
2. Prison population rate (per 100,000 of national population)33
3. Detainees (percentage of prison population)0.672
4. Female prisoners (percentage of prison population)0.043
5. Foreign prisoners (percentage of prison population)0.015
6. Number of prisons1401 (comprising 134 central jails, 379 district jails, 741 sub jails, 18 women's jails, 63 open jails, 20 Borstal schools, 43 special jails, 3 other jails)
7. Official capacity of prison system3667.81
8. Occupancy level1.144

Issues with prisons in India:

  1. Overcrowding:According to Centre’s reply in response to a question in the Lok Sabha in 2017, 149 jails in the country are overcrowded by more than 100% and that 8 are overcrowded by margins of a 500%. Overcrowding takes affects the already constrained prison resources and separation between different classes of prisoners difficult.
  2. Under-trials– More than 65% of the prison population in India are under trials. The share of the prison population awaiting trial or sentencing in India is extremely high by international standards; for example, it is 11% in the UK, 20% in the US and 29% in France.
  3. Lack of legal aid:Legal aid lawyers are poorly paid, and often over-burdened with cases. Further, there is no monitoring mechanism to evaluate the quality of legal aid representation in most states.

4.Unsatisfactory living conditions: Prison structures in India are in dilapidated condition. Further, lack of space, poor ventilation, poor sanitation and hygiene make living conditions deplorable in Indian prisons.

5.Shortage of staff: The ratio between the prison staff and the prison population is approximately 1:7. In the absence of adequate prison staff, overcrowding of prisons leads to rampant violence and other criminal activities inside the jails.

6.Torture and Sexual abuse:Prisoners are subjected to inhuman psychological and physical torture. Sexual abuse of persons in custody is also part of the broader pattern of torture in custody.  The National Human Rights Commission observes custodial violence as “worst form of excesses by public servants entrusted with the duty of law enforcement.”

7.Custodial deaths: In 2015, a total of 1,584 prisoners died in jails. A large proportion of the deaths in custody were from natural and easily curable causes aggravated by poor prison conditions. Further, there have been allegations of custodial deaths due to torture

8.Underpaid andunpaid labour:Labour is extracted from prisoners without paying proper wages.

9.Discrimination: According to Humans Rights Watch, a “rigid” class system exists in the Indian prisons. There is rampant corruption in the prison system and those who can afford to bribe, often enjoy luxuries in prison. On the other hand, socio-economically disadvantaged prisoners are deprived of basic human dignity.

10.Inadequate security measures and management:  Poor security measures and prison management often leads to violence among inmates and resultant injury and in some cases death.

  1.  Health:In the prison the problem of the overcrowding, poor sanitary facilities, lack of physical and mental activities, lack of decent health care, increase the likelihood of health problems. Further, mental health care has negligible focus in Indian prisons.

12.Condition of women prisoners: Women prisoners face number of challenges including poor nutrional intake, poor health and lack of basic sanitation and hygiene. Further, there are alleged instances of custodial rapes which generally go unreported due to the victims’ shame and fear of retribution.

13 Lack of reformative approach: Absence of reformative approach in Indian prison system has not only resulted in ineffective integration with society but also has failed to provide productive engagement opportunities for prisoners after their release

SC Judgements:

Through a number of judgements {like Maneka Gandhi case (Right to life and personal with dignity), Ramamurthy vs. State of Karnataka (on conditions of prisons) PremSankar Shukla vs. Delhi Administration (no handcuffing), Sunil Batra I and II vs. Delhi Admin (rights of prisoners)} on various aspects of condition of prisoners and prison administration, the Supreme has upheld three broad principles regarding imprisonment and custody.

  1. A person in prison does not become a non-person;
  2. A person in prison is entitled to all human rights within the limitations of imprisonment
  3. There is no justification for aggravating the suffering already inherent in the process of incarceration.


  1. The Prisons Act, 1894: It contains various provisions relating to health, employment, duties of jail officers, medical examination of prisoners, prison offences etc.
  2. Transfer of Prisoners Act, 1950 – The Act deals with transfer of prisoner from state to another state
  3. Repatriation of Prisoners Act, 2003: The act enables the transfer of foreign prisoners to the country of their origin to serve the remaining part of their sentence. It also enables the transfer of prisoners of Indian origin convicted by a foreign court to serve their sentence in India
  4. Model Prison Manual 2016: It aims at bringing in basic uniformity in laws, rules and regulations governing the administration of prisons and the management of prisoners across all the states and UTs in India
  5. Legal service Authority Act, 1987: According to the law, a person in custody is entitled to free legal aid.

Committees and Recommendations:

Various Committees and Commissions have been constituted by the State Governments as well as the Government of India to study and make suggestions for improving the prison conditions and administration.

Mulla Committee, 1983:

The major recommendations of the committee included:

  • The setting up of a National Prison Commission to oversee the modernization of the prisons in India
  • Putting a ban on clubbing together juvenile offenders with the hardened criminals in prison and enacting a comprehensive and protective legislation for the security and protective care of delinquent juveniles
  • Segregation of mentally ill prisoners to a mental asylum
  • The conditions of prison should be improved by making adequate arrangements for food, clothing, sanitation and ventilation etc.
  • Lodging of under trial in jails should be reduced to bare minimum and they should be kept separate from the convicted prisoners

Krishna Iyer Committee, 1987

The committee mandated to study the condition of women prisoners in the country, recommended induction of more women in the police force in view of their special role in tackling women and child offenders.

Steps taken:

  1. Modernization of Prisons scheme:The scheme for modernisation of prisons was launched in 2002-03 with the objective of improving the condition of prisons, prisoners and prison personnel. Various components included construction of new jails, repair and renovation of existing jails, improvement in sanitation and water supply etc.
  2. E-Prisons Project: It aims to introduce efficiency in prison management through digitization
  3. Draft National Policy on Prison Reforms and Correctional Administration:

Key features include:

  • Amending the constitution to include principles of prison management and treatment of under trials under DPSP; and including prisons in concurrent list
  • Enactment of uniform and comprehensive law on matters related to prisons.
  • A department of Prisons and Correctional Services to be opened in each state
  • State shall endeavour to provide alternatives to prisons such as community service, forfeiture of property, payment of compensation to victims, public
  • State shall improve the living conditions in every prison and allied institution.

India’s International Obligations:

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):

It is the core international treaty on the protection of the rights of prisoners. Key features include:

  • It imposes a requirement of separation of prisoners in pre-trial detention from those already convicted of crimes.
  • It states that there is a requirement that the focus of prisons should be reform and rehabilitation, not punishment
  • It bans torture or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR):

  • It acknowledges that the prisoners have a right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Further, second generation economic and social human rights as set down in the ICESR also apply to the prisoners.

United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners or Nelson Mandela Rules:

Fundamental principles on Nelson Mandela Rules are:

  • Prisoners must be treated with respect for their human rights and dignity
  • No torture or inhumane practice towards prisoners
  • Set an objective to prevent recurrence of crime
  • Everyone in the prison should be safe at all times
  • There should be no discrimination and administrators should take into account needs of individual prisoners especially the vulnerable ones

UN Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT): India signed UNCAT in 1997. However, has not yet ratified it.

International Best Practice:

Prison System- Norway:

Norway’s incarceration rate is only 75 per 100,000 people. Further, it has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. The criminal justice system in Norway focuses on the principle of restorative justice and rehabilitating prisoners. 30% of prisons in Norway are open and all prisons ensure healthy living conditions, vocational training and recreational facilities.

Way Forward

  1. There is a dire need to address the issue of overcrowding in Indian jails. Further, sincere efforts should be made to improve living conditions which include better sanitation and hygiene, adequate food and clothing.
  2. There should be urgent focus on addressing health issues and ensuring access to medical care among prisoners. Women’s health needs, covering mental, physical, sexual and reproductive health, require particular attention.
  3. Efforts should be made to reform offenders in the social stratification by giving them appropriate correctional treatment. Initiatives should be taken to impart vocational training to prisoners and ensure proper rehabilitation and social inclusion after release
  4. The government must take initiative to improve the conditions of under trail prisoners which can achieved by speeding of the trial procedure, simplification of the bail procedure and providing effective legal aid
  5. Issues related to custodial violence and sexual abuse should be dealt with effective monitoring and stringent punishments of those involved in such violence.
  6. Open prison as an effective institution for rehabilitation of offenders has been highlighted by Supreme Court as late as 1979 in Dharambeer v State of U.P case. The open prisons should be encouraged as a correctional facility.
  7. It is also important to address the issue of inadequate prison management by recruiting more prison staff, imparting proper training and undertaking modernization of prisons.
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