“If people get sick, we take them to the hospital and give them the right medicine to get better. If people’s behaviour is sick, we bring them to the prison, but we forget the medicines.”
– Sri Sri Ravi Shankar


A prison is a place where convicts are physically confined and are deprived of certain personal liberties. Prisons are a vital component of the criminal justice system. Imprisonment plays an important role in shielding society against crimes. Prisons in India have existed since time immemorial. It was argued that, for reformation, strict measures and custodial isolation is necessary, but with the development of behavioural sciences, it was believed that imprisonment had the opposite effect. With time, people understood that detention alone could not facilitate reformation. 
The main objective of putting offenders behind the bars is to rehabilitate them into righteous citizens through the process of inculcating the distaste of malicious activity and behaviour. But in reality, the prison authorities are trying to reform through the means of barbaric force in severely inhumane conditions. Therefore, the change in inmates is temporary and lasts only until they are under the control of the authorities. Once they are released, the aptitude of criminal activity increases because of the distressed environment they have kept it. For this reason, greater emphasis should be laid on rehabilitation rather than the use of compulsive methods for reformation.
However, the biggest problem that India’s prison system is facing today is the violation of the human rights of the prisoners like lack of proper healthcare facilities and sanitation, overcrowding, custodial torture and deaths. Therefore, the increasing number of incarcerations in India is a major reason for concern to enforce basic necessities and human rights as a matter of priority.


Human rights are the fundamental and inalienable rights that are indispensable to lead a life[1]. These rights are inherent in our nature and without them living a dignified life is nearly impossible. These are the fundamental freedoms that fully develop and use the human qualities to satisfy physical, spiritual and other needs. 
During the Hindu and the Mughal period, the main objective of punishment revolved around deterrence. The recognized method of punishment was through the form of torture or death. However, the British during the colonial rule initiated the penal reforms; they made efforts to improve the conditions of inmates in confinement by introducing fundamental changes in the prison system.
In India, the sole purpose behind creating prisons today is to maintain the law and order situation in the country. Whereas they must be seen as an essential means to preserve and improve the quality of human life. India still believes investment in prisons as non-developmental. Majority of prisoners are a victim of stark deprivation and of forced induction into the criminogenic culture, they do not have an advocacy of their own or on their behalf. As a result, prisons are given least priority within the criminal justice system.
The grim state of prison justice assumes an inhumane misanthropic fragrance when the intellect of prisoners is blemished, the personhood of prison is fortified and are forced to lose their integrity and individuality, thereby compelling them to become the rightless slaves of the state[2].
In the landmark case of Rudal Shah v. State of Bihar[3], the court was to decide that whether in the exercise of jurisdiction under Article 32, an order in the nature of compensation consequential upon the deprivation of fundamental right be passed? The Supreme Court extended a new branch of jurisprudence called, “Compensatory Jurisprudence” where, for violations of prisoners’ rights to executive action, compensation will be awarded. This humanitarian attitude of the judges has helped those who have been victims of the acts of the authorities.
For the prison authorities, the word Reformation only means one thing that is, transforming a convicted person with the use of force and torture. However, Human Rights Jurisprudence advocates that any punishment which amounts to a cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment of a person is an offence in itself[4].  


The Freedom Struggle movement in India initiated the process of recognizing the rights of the detainees. During this time, India as a whole understood the importance of human rights for the existence of an individual. Therefore, the concept of Fundamental Rights was adopted which guarantees the right of personal liberty and prohibits any inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment.
The Apex Court while interpreting Article 21 of the constitution has stated that, prisoners too deserve to live with human dignity and therefore, their human rights should be preserved and protected. However, it is a well-settled principle that Article 21 can be deprived according to the procedure established by law which cannot be arbitrary, unjust or unreasonable. In Francis Coralie Mullin v. The Administrator[5], it was held that “Article 21 requires that no one shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except by procedure established by law and this procedure must be reasonable, fair and just and not arbitrary, whimsical or fanciful.”  
Violation of the above-mentioned right attracts the provisions of Article 14 which ensures the right to equality and equal protection of law to every citizen. Apart from this, the Prison Act, 1984 and the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 have also been used to safeguard the interests of the prisoners. The Supreme Court has time and again recognized the rights of the prisoners by interpreting Articles 19, 21, 22, 32, 37 and 39A to ensure that the prisons transform the convicts into law-abiding citizens rather than converting them into a more hardcore criminal.   
The various judgments in which the Courts have upheld the human rights of the convicts are: 
  1. In Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration[6], Justice V.R Krishna Iyer held that “Convicts are not by mere reason of the conviction denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise possess.”
  2. Like you and me, prisoners are also human beings. Hence, all such rights except those that are taken away in the legitimate process of incarceration still remain with them. These include rights that are related to the protection of basic human dignity as well as those for the development of the prisoner into a better human beingCharles Sobraj v. Superintendent[7].  
  3. “A convict goes to prison as punishment and not for punishment. The sentence should be carried out in accordance with the court’s order. The prison authorities have no right to inflict any additional punishment” State of Andhra Pradesh v, Challa Ramkrishna Reddy[8]. 


According to the Prison Statistics India, 2018 report, 1,845 prisoners had died in custody in 2018. This is the highest number of prison deaths in the last 20 years. Since 2000, there was a 20% increase in the prison population across the world; however, India saw an increase of 71%[9]. Moreover, the rate of increase in the number of women prisoners (111.7%) in India is twice that of the world rate.
The main reason behind this gigantic increase is the increase in the number of under-trial cases. According to the 2018 statistics, 70% of the total prison population is still awaiting a trial.  The share of under-trial confinement for more than three years has increased by 140% since 2000. This increasing period of incarceration is likely borne by mostly innocent people.
The rise in a number of the prison population is the main reason behind the appalling prison conditions which results in human rights violation. These stand in contravention of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoner (Nelson Mandela Rules) 2015, which calls upon governments to ensure that “the prison regime should seek to minimize any differences between prison life and life at liberty that tend to lessen the responsibility of the prisoners or the respect due to their dignity as human beings.”


Prisons are an essential institute, which acts as deterrence for the criminal and shields the society from such offenders. The obstacles in prison reforms require a structural change, which can be only achieved through greater clarification, both conceptually and practically. 
The problem of rehabilitation of prisoners is just a drop in the ocean, the larger issue is the conditions in which such rehabilitation takes place. The place and conditions in which a person lives influence his decisions. Therefore, it is very important that the prison conditions and the prison administration are improved. The judiciary alone cannot protect the rights of the prisoners. The effort to improve the present situation will only succeed when the police system, education system and the various social institutions work hand in hand to improve the condition.
A person does not lose his human rights merely because he has committed an offence, as he also has some dignity which must be protected.”
John Marshall


  1. Dr S.K.Kapoor, Human Rights under International Law and Indian Law, Central Law Agency, 3rd Edition, 2005.
  2. Bansal .V.K. Right to Life and Personal Liberty in India, Deep and Deep Publications, New Delhi, ed I (1987).
  3. Rudal Shah v. State of Bihar, 1983 4 SCC 141.
  4. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984, Art. 
  5. Francis Coralie Mullin v.The Administrator, 1981 AIR 746.
  6. Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, (1978) 4 SCC 409.
  7. Charles Sobhraj v. Superintendent, 1978 AIR 1514.
  8. State of Andhra Pradesh v, Challa Ramkrishna Reddy, 2000 AIR 2083.
  9. Prison Statistics India – 2018, (20th June 2020, 4:11 PM),
  10. World Prison Brief, (20th June 2020, 4:36 PM),
BY- Carina Arora & Manuureet Singh
VIPS and Army Institute of Law

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