Prison Administration and Reforms in India
All over the world, Prisons are considered as areas designed specifically to create separation of the offenders from the society. Punishment and Confinement are viewed as the primary functions of Prisons. From Ancient Times, till even now, the Prisons have been associated with seclusion and custodial treatments which are expected to bring ‘reformative changes’ in the behaviours of the offenders and to ultimately build a sense of deterrence. However, with the advancements of psychological studies and research, it has been found that seclusion and rigorous custodial treatments do not bring in the changes that we desire. Instead, this approach results in the violations of Human Rights of the offenders in prisons at every level which in a manner is counterintuitive. Structural Incompetence and Unsympathetic mindsets of the administrative personnel and all the other stakeholders in the society have also played a major role which has sparked a debate and an actual need for Prison Reforms.
The Problems Of Prisoners
The Prisons in India are plagued with numerous issues which have curtailed the rights of the Prisoners, resulting in the violation of Human Rights and limiting the opportunities for them to become better persons in essence. The Supreme Court of India, in the case of Rama Murthy v. State of Karnataka[i] has highlighted the major issues which the prisoners face in Jails. These include –
- Overcrowding – Prisons in India are generally overcrowded. The dismal situation is evident from the fact that the Prison Occupancy Rate in India is 119% which causes an overall breakdown in administration, as per the Prison Statistics of India, 2020, published by National Crime Records Bureau.[ii]
- Problems of Undertrials – 76% of inmates in Indian jails are undertrials, a rate which is much higher if compared to Western Countries. In the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar[iii] it was held that Speedy Trials and the well-being of Undertrial prisoners is a fundamental right under Article 21[iv] of the Indian Constitution.
- Exploitation – Ill-treatment if the prisoners has always been an issue with regards to Indian Jails and is a concern for the policy makers. The prisoners are compelled to undergo severe and torturous labour activities without or with very little remuneration.
- Gender-based Exploitation – With regards to Women prisoners, who account for a substantial number in prisons, there is a high possibility of abuse in jails. To ensure this, prison-related female personnel must be one-third as mandated in various policy documents, however, the number remains significantly low.
- Staff Crunch – Associated to this, there is a serious logistical shortage of administrative and medical staff in jails. On an average, the vacancies of medical staff across the country is around 35 percent showing the appalling conditions.
- Infrastructural Problems – The infrastructural shortcomings are based on the fact that a high number of Indian Prisons were constructed in Pre-Independence era and do not meet the standards as set out in United Nations’ Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.[v]
- Problems within the Three-tier system – Indian Prison System is based on a Three-tier Model with Central Jails at the top, followed by District Jails and Sub-Jails at the lower levels. It has been observed that a relatively better management of Prison Infrastructure is found at the lower levels due to them being set up at lower levels. However, the conditions are comparatively critical at the Higher Levels especially at the Central Jails. A crucial reason for this is because the Administration at Zonal/Regional Levels is difficult to be carried on efficiently, which has resulted in deteriorating conditions of the Prison Infrastructure and Facilities ultimately causing Prisoners to suffer.
- Health Issues – Health and Hygiene facilities have also not been up to the mark, failing the objectives set out in various statutes and rulebooks, due to the lack of proper implementation.
- Mental Health Problems – The mental health of the Prisoners has been an issue which is not talked about enough in the country due to the lack of awareness and involvement scientific elements in execution. The seclusion from the society and lack of family support has taken a considerable hit on the headspace of the Prisoners.
International Agreements Vis-à-vis Prisoners’ Rights
Post World-War II, The International institutions, especially the United Nations made the Protection of Human Rights as one of its foremost priorities. Consequently, the need to protect the rights of Prisoners also intensified which ultimately resulted in various International Conventions.
- The United Nations Declaration Of Human Rights, 1948
The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, 1948[vi] (hereinafter referred to as UDHR) enumerates the rights every person is entitled to. To give effect to the rights embedded in the UDHR, various covenants and conventions were adopted with global acceptance and cooperation.
- The International Covenant On Civil And Political Rights, 1966
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 (hereinafter referred to as ICCPR)[vii] is the main international agreement for the protection of the rights of the prisoners. Human Dignity, Protection from Cruelty and security of the lives of persons remain at the core of this covenant.
- The Declaration On The Protection From Torture, 1975
The Declaration on the Protection from Torture, 1975[viii] was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in order to protect human lives from the acts of inhumane treatments and torturous and degrading punishments.
- Convention Against Torture And Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment Or Punishment, 1984
In the year 1984, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment[ix] in order to make the signatories to take up affirmative actions in the legislative, administrative and judicial domains to prevent acts of torture and degrading treatments. This way, the UN called for a robust-mechanism to ensure the protection of prisoners’ rights.
Judicial Trends related to Prisoners’ Rights.
Indian Judiciary throughout the years has played a huge role in checking upon prison administration in the country. The first major case, in which the Supreme Court established the need to ensure the protection of Fundamental Rights and the importance of Prison reforms was Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar where it was stressed upon the need to improve the conditions of jails in India. The case of D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal[x] is another prime example of how the Supreme Court has addressed the issue of custodial deaths in Indian prisons thus protecting their rights enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution. Similarly, in the case of R.D. Upadhyay v. State of A.P.,[xi] the Supreme Court observed that the right to fair treatment and right of judicial remedy are pre-requisites of administration of prison justice. The case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[xii] is a landmark judgement and has been reinstated by the judiciary time and time again, even in the context of the Rights of Prisoners to live with dignity. This case has also laid down the procedure cannot be arbitrary, unfair or unreasonable. The enumeration of pronouncements given above is an indication of the importance of Judiciary in protecting Prisoners’ rights. There has been a plethora of other cases where the Supreme Court has reiterated the importance of such protections. However, greater administrative will and Policy improvements are required in order to ensure comprehensive safeguards of the Human Rights of the Prisoners.
The Indian judiciary & legislation has had taken note of the international agreements, prevailing conditions, needs related to the prison administration. Among the different set of prisoners, the most vulnerable ones in Indian prisons tend to be the undertrials, women & individuals with mental health issues.
The contradiction between the present status of undertrials and the boundation laid under Section 436A[xiii] of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 is sufficient to explain the need for prison reforms. According to the statistics,[xiv] compiled by the Custodial Justice Cell of the NHRC, a total of 2,25,817 persons out of the jail population of 3,04,893 persons in India are undertrials. Women, on the other hand, account for 3.42% of the total jail population.[xv] Indian prisons are home to 17,834 women, and only 17% of these women live in exclusively female prisons, while the majority are housed in female enclosures of general prisons. The lack of women personnel in prison administration is just the tip of the iceberg to plethora of issues & mismanagement of the prevailing rules. Mental illness among prisoners constitute one other very critical issue in the prisons. Section 103(7) of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017[xvi] deals with provisions on prisoners with mental illness.
Section 436A of the Code states that a person who has undergone detention for a period extending up to one-half of the maximum period of imprisonment specified for that offence under that law, he shall be released by the Court on his personal bond with or without sureties.
The principle that bail is the rule and jail is the exception has been well recognised through the repetitive pronouncements by the Indian Judiciary.[xvii] This again is based on the touchstone of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Depriving, therefore, the personal liberty of an individual in the name of law would only violate the fundamental right visualised by Article 21, telescoped with the right guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution.
A National Policy on Prison Reforms and Correctional Administration[xviii] had also been framed in 2007, which gave a number of directives relevant to women prisoners – maintenance of human rights of prisoners, avoiding overstay of undertrials etc. It further states, “Women prisoners shall be protected against all exploitation. Work and treatment programmes shall be devised for them in consonance with their special needs.” The updated Model Prison Manual of 2016[xix] also emphasises on special provisions for women prisoners apart from other basic advancements.
The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, mandates the State to provide adequate, efficient and quality mental health intervention to the prisoners. Section 103 (7) of the Act directs that the mental health establishments inside prisons shall be registered with either the central or the state mental healthcare board. The Hon’ble Courts in various of its judgements[xx] noted that these should conform to prescribed standards and procedures.
Looking at the ground level reality, the history of mental health concerns inside women jails are also institutionally invisibilised. The jail authorities do not maintain data on the number of women, for instance, who have complained about mental health issues, the number of women who have requested for psychological intervention, and the number of women who are transferred to mental healthcare establishments under section 30 of the Prisons Act.[xxi]
NHRC in 2014 in its report stated that on average, a person is one-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide in prison than outside. It is a possible indicator of the magnitude of mental health concerns, plus harsh atrocities committed upon them. To add-on, there is severe overcrowding, malnutrition, unhygienic conditions & huge lack of medical facilities. Conditions in many prisons are so deficient as to constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, violating Article 7 of ICCPR.[xxii] Though the Standard Minimum Rules have been integrated into the prison laws & regulations of many countries, few of any prison systems observe all of their prescriptions in practice. In India, as discussed, present provisions for one reason or another, like the lack of female staff in place, specific prison space for women, lack of sensitization of police personnel on subjects like mental health, undue arrests, constitute the violation of fundamental rights under the Constitution of India. It is time to humanise the prisons in the country, so as to look after the basic needs of a human being, being there in whatever capacity.
Conclusion And Suggestions
The Ultimate Goal of Criminal Justice System is twofold – to ensure peace and order in the society and to bring Reformative changes in the behaviour of the offenders. Prisons and an effective Prison Administration System play a crucial role in order to attain the latter. Over a period of time, the inefficiency of the Prison Administration has created a number of doubts in the minds of the stakeholders of the society regarding their overall growth as a social unit. The prison administration is plagued with a number of shortcomings ranging from staff crunch to abuse of inmates to the dismal situation of undertrials. Reformative schemes have been introduced by the governments at the Centre and State levels complying with the International Conventions and Standards but their efficient implementation in all jails across the country remains a major issue boiling down to a number of causes such as shortage of financial resources, lack of coordination and transparency. The Judiciary, through its various judgements have played an active role in guiding the policy-makers as well as in spreading awareness and making the general masses know the need for Prison Reforms.
Despite all the efforts taken, Prison Reform is still a concept which is talked about but not implemented in the fullest capacity, which ultimately results in the violation of Human Rights of the Prisoners. Therefore, emphasis must be given to ensure the implementation of the policies and directives at all levels in the most time and capital-efficient manner. Improvement in the Infrastructural arrangements and Personnel Utilisation needs to be taken care of. However, most importantly a sympathetic attitude towards Prisoners is the single-most important change which needs to be inculcated, which would by itself ensure the aspects of efficient implementation and transparency in Prison Administration.
Article by –
Convener, Centre for Human Rights, Gender & Social Inclusion; 5th year B.A., LL.B. (Hons.), Faculty of Law, Jagran Lakecity University
Co-Convener, Centre for Human Rights, Gender & Social Inclusion; 4th year B.A., LL.B. (Hons.), Faculty of Law, Jagran Lakecity University
[i] Rama Murthy v. State of Karnataka, AIR 1997 SC 1739. [ii] National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs: Prison Statistics India, 2020, [iii] Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, 1979 AIR 1369 (India). [iv] Article 21, Constitution of India 1950. [v]United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes <https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/Nelson_Mandela_Rules-E-ebook.pdf> (Last Visited November 6, 2022). [vi]United Nations Organisation https://nhrc.nic.in/press-release/undertrials-constitute-7406-cent-thetotal-prison-population-country [xv] Id. [xvi] Section 103(7), Acts of Parliament, No. 10 of 2017, The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017. [xvii] Satender Kumar Antil v. CBI & Anr., (2012) 1 SCC 40 (India). [xviii] Bureau of Police Research & Development, Ministry of Home Affairs, National Policy on Prison Reforms and Correctional Administration, 2007 <https://bprd.nic.in/WriteReadData/userfiles/file/5261991522-Part%20I.pdf> (Last visited 11 November, 2022).  Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, Women in Prison India, June 2018
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