This article “Imprisonment: An Undeserved Pseudo Hell to the Living” deals with prison justice and prison reform in India. It is not about assigning blames, or claiming that there is absolutely no good left in the prison system. But, there is a need of Reformation of Under-trials, of Women Prisoners; of Juvenile Offenders and hence it`s about what… Read More »

This article “Imprisonment: An Undeserved Pseudo Hell to the Living” deals with prison justice and prison reform in India. It is not about assigning blames, or claiming that there is absolutely no good left in the prison system. But, there is a need of Reformation of Under-trials, of Women Prisoners; of Juvenile Offenders and hence it's about what can now be done to remedy the wrongs.

Introduction: Imprisonment: An Undeserved Pseudo Hell to the Living

I’d watched too many schoolmates graduate into mental institutions, into group homes and jails, and I knew that locking people up was paranormal – against normal, not beside it. Locks didn’t cure; they strangled.” Westerfeld, The Last Days

Why is it that in a country where the death penalty is still a way of punishment, imprisonment has become one of its worse forms? The prisons are there not simply to punish the offender by incarceration but to reform them into model citizens. The Apex Court in State of Gujarat & another v. Hon’ble High Court of Gujarat[1] observed, Reformation and rehabilitation is basic policy of criminal law. To allow them to indulge in self-introspection about their deeds. But the conditions of many such prisons don't appear to be that of a reformative institution rather a slum area.

The prisons are, overcrowded, every now and then there is news of violence inside the jail, they are understaffed, just recently there was an alleged sexual assault on Indrani Mukherjee in Byculla jail, an inmate Manjulla Shette died in the Byculla women's prison, riots in that very jail, last year, the 25-year-old inmate allegedly hanged himself in the Puzhal Central Prison in Chennai, the strength of the counsellors who are required to help the prisoners go through the change so that they can be reformed citizens is said to be 1 for 2000 inmates[2] and so on. These incidents and many others reported across the decades are the living proof of how decadent our prison systems have become when it comes to the safety of inmates.

On the plus side, maybe the crime rate might drop, just so that they won't have to end up in such overcrowded slums.

According to Prison Statistics India, 2015 released by National Crime Records Bureau:-

  1. Total Number of Jails in the Country: 1,401
  2. Total Capacity of Jails in the Country: 3,66,781
  3. Total Number of Jail Inmates as on 31.12.2015: 4,19,623
  4. Around 24 psychiatrists are there for the approx. 4 lakh people.
  5. 77 unnatural deaths by way of suicide during 2015 that is 4.9% of the Prison Population.

These are not just numbers. They paint a picture. Imagine your 2 BHK house filled with you, your wife, your parents, your wife's parents, your 3 children. If you are not claustrophobic, this will certainly inspire you to be. This has become the condition of our prison's, the reformative institutions need reformation themselves.

Though, there are some positives to the prison system like State Welfare Officers help in Reformation of Prisoners. There are some programmes as initiated by various State governments for the reforms of the prisoners such as Educational Facilities, Prisoners’ Panchayats, Vocational Training, Yoga and Meditation, Facility for Psychological Treatment so that the individual is able to release his pent up emotions and realise his worth, Prisoners’ Grievance Cell, Community Participation, Periodical Visit of Medical Officers, Use of Non-custodial Methods in Reformation of Prisoners like: – Probation, Parole, Open Prisons, Remission, Work Release etc.[4]

Still, the demeaning situation of the prisons in our country came into focus in the early 1980s, when as part of the National Police Commission, K.F. Rustomji highlighted prison conditions and the plight of undertrial prisoners. Activists such as Sheela Barse filed public interest litigation petitions on custodial conditions, and judges like Justice P.N. Bhagwati and Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer passed landmark judgments.[5]

The Mulla Committee also is known as the All India Committee on Jail Reforms 1980-83 and the Krishna Iyer Committee constituted in 1987 for women prisoners officially brought to the fore the prison conditions. The latest Draft National Policy on Prison Reforms and Correctional Administration, 2007, prepared by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) enlists reviews of prison conditions and the like and enumerates various recommendations for its improvement.

In Rama Murthy v. State of Karnataka[6], it was observed that: –

The literature on prison justice and prison reform shows that there are nine major problems which afflict the system and which need immediate attention. These are (1) overcrowding; (2) delay in trial; (3) torture and ill-treatment; (4) neglect of health and hygiene; (5) insubstantial food and inadequate clothing; (6) prison vices; (7) deficiency in communication; (8) streamlining of jail visits, and (9) management of open-air prisons.”

Two specific issues related to the prison system are: –

1. The stigma of being a convict

It still exists no matter what the people claim. “When you've been in jail this long, everyone treats you differently. It's not me who has suffered the most, but my wife and children. They feel the impact every day, said Shivashankar, “Wherever they go, everyone knows their husband or father is a convict. So, when I go on parole, I sit at home the whole time even though that's the only time I'm outside jail. Being at home is more like being jailed than being here.” Prisoner, as well as the family, face social ostracization. Adding to this stigma the mental shock suffered during the incarceration sums up to be a little too much to handle.

Moreover, because of the dearth of psychologists and counsellors, the prisoners are not receiving proper counsel to help them make it through this new environment and not able to cope with their situation, prisoners resort to the method that apparently ends their suffering. Suicide was the cause of death for as many as 77 inmates during 2015 alone, according to the NCRB report[7].

2. Overcrowding

In some schools across the country, there is a rule that to a class, only 30 students can be admitted why? Because, it makes it easier to concentrate on students individually. Prison officers have two duties like two sides of a coin. One is providing security to prisoners and the other is to correct them and give them back to society as reformed humans.[8]. The same goes for the reformative institutions which apparently keep stuffing themselves with inmates, prisoners, even though there is hardly any space left, or not enough officers appointed to look after them. Add to that the low work ethic and the personal feelings towards an offender and voila what we get is a hostile living environment.

Ever imagined living in an enclosed space, where you can only be permitted to leave and no will can be exercised. Now add to that anguish, the constant ruckus by the officers, the impending harassment which turns sexual in some cases, violent in most though fatal to, well, just a few, right?

We talk big about humanity, but that gets trampled by our weak work ethic, the desire to win against others, maybe to get a promotion or to earn more, whatever the reason. In Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration[9], it was observed that when a prisoner is traumatised, the Constitution suffers a shock.

It is every prisoner's right that no inhuman treatment be inflicted on him and that not more than the deserved legal punishment is administered. Of course, you can't say you have a fundamental right to escape away from prison as part of freedom of movement. No prisoner has a fundamental right to escape from lawful custody[10]. When you commit a crime or wrong, you lose some of the rights, that is the reason why all human rights were not made fundamental rights because if its fundamental, it becomes state's duty to protect it but for the purposes of punishment it is necessary to curtail some of the human rights like freedom of movement.

Art. 21 of the Indian Constitution which ensures life and personal liberty is limited in its operation because of this phenomenon though it has been stretched to include almost every possible right important/necessary for a peaceful existence.

In D K Basu v. State of West Bengal[11], it was observed that a reading of the morning newspapers almost every day carrying reports of dehumanising torture, assault, rape and death in custody of police or other governmental agencies is indeed depressing. The increasing incidence of torture and death in custody has assumed such alarming proportions that it is affecting the credibility of the Rule of Law and the administration of the criminal justice system.


These are just some theoretical recommendations. The suggestions can be, construction of new prisons, promotion or liberalisation of bail to undertrials, expediting the judicial system where more than three crore cases are still pending[12] and appointing new Judges to achieve the required strength of 50,000 judges. A new control room in Bengaluru which will receive feeds from CCTV cameras in prison has been inaugurated just a few months back[13]. In the remaining states too, the same can be done.

Recently, a person who had committed petty theft was released after 54 years, meaning 54 years for a crime whose punishment is 3 yrs[14]. Granted he was given Rs.3 lakh in the form of compensation, but does that give him the 54 years of his entire life back or is it enough to make for such a severe loss? Won't it be better to just prevent it in the first place? The famous Rudal Shah case[15] where he was kept illegally in jail for 14 yrs. There are many more such incidents. The solution is a bit tedious but it can be resolved by periodic visits to the prisons, keeping a check. Also, if undertrials are kept separate to the convicts, the screening process can be expedited. This further requires infrastructure. Like for e.g. the plan to construct a new prison at Mankhurd owing to the recent upheavals in Byculla Jail i.e. the death of Manjulla Shette and the riot that followed.


In G. Picheswara Rao v. S.I. of Police, What had to happen to the alleged detenus and the petitioner has happened, but any repetition of what has happened as has been reported to us in any other case or in future in the case of the petitioner and his family members will be most undesirable.

It is not about assigning blames, or claiming that there is absolutely no good left in the prison system. But, there is a need of Reformation of Under-trials, of Women Prisoners; of Juvenile Offenders and hence it's about what can now be done to remedy the wrongs.

Of course, the money, land etc. for the solutions will take time, not to mention the approval of relevant authorities and hence unless more pressing needs are there, there is no time than now to begin. It will take time but with each step, we will get closer. This is essential for the rights of those whose voices are not loud enough to be heard.

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones. – Nelson Mandela

By – Rangoli Tiwari

[1] AIR 1998 SC 3164.





[6] AIR 1997 SC 1739.

[7] Supra.


[9] AIR 1980 SC 1579.

[10] Rama Murthy v. State of Karnataka, AIR 1997 AC 1739.

[11] AIR 1997 SC 610.




[15] Rudal Shah v. State of Bihar, AIR 1983 SC 1086.

[16] 1997 Cri Lj 1145 (AP) (DB)

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Updated On 11 May 2020 7:58 AM GMT
Rangoli Tiwary

Rangoli Tiwary

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