During the recent Constitution Day celebrations, India’s President stated that we cannot claim to be a progressive nation if we continue to build prisons to address the issue of overcrowding. These remarks contrast sharply with the Lieutenant-Governor (LG) of Delhi’s last-year directive to the Delhi prison department to allocate additional land for the construction of a district prison complex housing high-risk offenders and undertrials.



  • Prison is a State subject under List-II of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India.
  • Hence, 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.


Need for prison reforms

  • Issue of undertrial prisonersThey are those who have been accused of some crime and waiting to appear before the court. They cannot be called as a convict because their guilt has not been proved.
      • According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) PSI 2020, about 76% of all prison inmates in the country were undertrials, of which about 68% were either illiterate or school dropouts.
      • It implies that three out of four prisoners are not even convicted, which is extremely high by international standards like it is 11% in UK, 20% in US and 29% in France.
      • Also, majority of the undertrials are poor and illiterate and Indian prisons have over-representation of Dalits and Adivasis.
      • They are unable to furnish bail for their release, are not made aware about their legal rights i.e., the right to free legal aid, the right to get the legal practitioner of their choice, the right to bail, etc.
  • Colonial legislation — Prisons in India are still governed by the Prisons Act, 1894, a colonial legislation which treats prisoners as sub-par citizens.
      • It provides the legal basis for punishment to be retributive, rather than rehabilitative.
      • It is also highly casteist and has remained largely unchanged since drafted by the British.
      • For example, some jail manuals continue to focus on purity as prescribed by the caste system, and assign work in prison based on the prisoner’s caste identity.
  • Discriminatory laws — For example, legislations such as the Habitual Offenders Act and Beggary Laws allow the police to target those belonging to lower castes.
  • Issue of overcrowding — According to the NCRB’s PSI 2021, there were 5.5 lakh inmates in 1,401 prisons across India, as against a sanctioned capacity of 4.25 lakh.
  • Torture and ill -treatment — The prisoners including the undertrials are forced to do severe labour without any remuneration and treated with utmost torture. There has also been a continuous rise in the custodial deaths due to torture and ill-treatment. Women prisoners are more vulnerable to abuse.
  • Inadequate prison infrastructure — Most Indian prisons were built in the colonial era, are in constant need of repair and part of them are uninhabitable for long periods.
  • Neglect of Health, Hygiene, food — The prisoners in India suffer from severe unhygienic conditions, lack of proper medical facilities and the diet has remained unchanged for years now.


Various recommendations for prison reforms

  • Justice A N Mulla committee — This All-India Committee on Jail Reforms (1980– 1983) recommended to develop an All-India Prison Service as a professional career service with appropriate job requirements, sound training and proper promotional avenues.
      • He also suggested setting up of a National Prison Commission as a continuing body to bring out modernisation of prisons in India.
      • It also recommended the government to set up and develop open prisons in each state and UT and life convicts with a good behaviour to be transferred to semi-open & open prisons.
  • Justice Krishna Iyer Committee — Set up in 1987, it recommended induction of more women in the police force in view of their special role in tackling women and child offenders.
  • Justice Amitava Roy Committee — It was set up in 2018 by the SC and recommended special fast-track courts to deal exclusively with petty offences which have been pending for more than five years.
      • It further called for accused persons who are charged with petty offences and granted bail, but who are unable to arrange surety should be released on a Personal Recognisance (PR) Bond.
  • Draft National Policy on Prison Reforms and Correctional Administration, 2007 — It recommended establishment of a Research and Development wing, and financial assistance to NGOs working for the rehabilitation of prisoners.
      • It also suggested community-based alternatives to imprisonment for offenders convicted for relatively minor offences.


Steps taken by the government

  • E-Prisons Project — It supplements the Prisoner Information Management system (PIMS) which provides a centralised approach for recording and managing prisoner information and generating different kinds of reports.
  • Model Prison Manual 2016 — It provides detailed information about the legal services (including free services) available to prison inmates. The Ministry of Home Affairs has issued an advisory to all States and UTs informing them about the legal aid facility available to under-trial prison inmates.
  • National Legal Services Authority — It has launched a web application to facilitate the undertrial prisoners with free legal services. The objective of the above application is to make the legal services system more transparent and useful.


Way forward

  • Specific legislation — The Supreme Court asked the Government of India to consider the introduction of a separate enactment, in the nature of a Bail Act (as in United Kingdom) so as to streamline the grant of bails. The UK Bail Act 1976 prescribes the procedure for granting bail and aims to reduce the size of the inmate population. The Act recognises a “general right” to be granted bail and has provisions for ensuring legal aid for defendants.
  • High Courts to identify undertrials — The High Courts have been directed by the apex court to identify undertrial prisoners who cannot comply with bail conditions and take appropriate action in light of Section 440 of the CrPC, facilitating their release. Under Section 440 of the CrPC, the amount of bond shall not be excessive, and HCs and sessions courts may reduce the amount prescribed by the magistrate or a police officer.
  • Criminal reform — The SC had advised the Centre that criminals sentenced to imprisonment for 6 months or a year should be allocated social service duties rather than be sent to jails to further choke the already overflowing prisons.
  • Lesser confinement — These could include releasing unwell or old inmates, reducing penalties, allowing bail at affordable costs, expediting trials for them, etc.
  • Training & correctional activities — Vocational training in courses like cloth making, electrification, etc., for the inmates, facilities for recreational activities such as games and competitions for inmates and staff, etc.
  • Technological up-gradations — Such as biometric identification facilities, prisoner information system, provision of CCTVs, video conferencing facilities, etc., are needed.
  • Infrastructure development — The students at the Yale School of Architecture in 2017 designed prison facility to house extraordinarily violent offenders. Their models featured open and communal space, fresh air, and spaces for family visits and therapy. Their versions of prisons thus emphasised moving away from the traditional conception of prisons, even for the most violent inmates.



The approach towards prison reforms should be to rehabilitate and reform the inmates, rather than reactive to avoid subjecting people to unnecessary trauma and confinement. The three-judge Bench of the SC recently quoted Oscar Wilde while commuting a death sentence – ‘Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.’


SourceThe Hindu


QUESTION – Prisons of India are inhospitable relics of our colonial past which reek more of retribution than reformation. Comment the need to introduce prison reforms in the country with a brief outline of the areas that need change.