Prison Reforms

“Hate the Crime And Not The Criminal”— Mahatma Gandhi

Why Prisons were established

  • Punishing the offenders is the primary function of all civil societies. Prisons are known to have existed throughout history. All men are born equal and are endowed by their creator with some basic rights. Many experts believe that the main objective of prisons is to bring the offenders back to the mainstream of the society.
  • It was believed that rigorous isolation and custodial measures would reform the offenders. Experience, however, belied this expectation and often imprisonment had the opposite effect.


  • The real purpose of sending criminals to prison is to transform them into honest and law abiding citizens by inculcating in them distaste for crime and criminality.

History of Prisons in India:

  • A well organised system of prisons is known to have existed in India from the earliest time.
  • The object of punishment during Hindu and Mughal period in India was to deter offenders from repeating crime. The recognised modes of punishment were death sentence, hanging, whipping, flogging, branding or starving to death.
  • The prisoners were ill-treated, tortured and subjected to most inhuman treatment.
  • They were kept under strict control and supervision.
  • The British colonial rule in India marked the beginning of penal reforms in this country.
  • The British prison authorities made strenuous efforts to improve the condition of Indian prisons and prisoners.
  • They introduced radical changes in the then existing prison system keeping in view the sentiments of the indigenous people.
  • Conditions of prisoners were harsher than animals in India and prisoners were treated with hatred.
  • There was no uniform civil code to give punishment.

Steps taken to Reform Prison

  • The modern prison system in India was originated by TB Macaulay in 1835.
  • A committee namely Prison Discipline Committee, 1836. The contemporary Prison administration in India is thus a legacy of British rule. It is based on the notion that the best criminal code can be of little use to a community unless there is good machinery for the infliction of punishments.
  • The second Jail Enquiry Committee in 1862 expressed concern for the insanitary conditions of Indian Prisoners which resulted in death of several prisoners due to illness and disease. It emphasised the need for proper food and clothing for the prison inmates and medical treatment of ailing prisoners.
  • The Prisoners Act was enacted to bring uniformity in the working of the prisoners in India. The Act provided for classification of prisoners and the sentences of whipping were abolished.

Legal Position

  • ‘Prisons’ is a State subject under 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.
  • Thus, States have the primary role, responsibility and authority to change the current prison laws, rules and regulations National/International Conferences/Congresses/Conventions on prison matters including Asia–Pacific Conference of Correctional Administrators and other international bodies on Correctional Administration.

Why prison Reform

  • Imprisonment affects the prisoner and also his family living in poverty.
  • Prisons have very serious health implications.
  • Imprisonment disrupts relationships and weakens social cohesion.
  • Overcrowded Prison: Prisons in India are overcrowded. As a result of this there is no separation of offenders of serious offences and minor offences. Hence hardened criminals may spread their influence over minor criminals.
  • In India, 71 percent of the prison population is either illiterate or educated below high school. Majority of these people remain in prison pending trial or conviction.
  • Most recent statistics reveal that over 67 percent of the prisoners are undertrials and may continue to be held in overcrowded prisons for years.
  • Lack of inspections and sketchy implementation of oversight mechanisms turn prisons into shoddy living conditions.
  • This rot in the criminal justice system impacts the psychological condition of a prisoner making the person more vulnerable than before to criminal propensities. The prisoner gets out of jail ruined and not reformed.
  • The Supreme Court, in its landmark decision in Ramamurthy v. State of Karnataka, has identified nine major problems which need immediate attention for implementing prison reforms. The court observed that the present prison system is affected with major problems of; 
  1. Overcrowding
  2. Delay in trial
  3. Torture and ill treatment
  4. Neglect of health and hygiene
  5. Insufficient food and inadequate clothing
  6. Prison vices
  7. Deficiency in communication
  8. Streamlining of jail visits and
  9. Management of open air prisons

How Prison reform in India differ from West: 

  • In India, prison reforms did not emerge from the social movement but were necessarily an outcome of the worst conditions of treatment faced by the political sufferers in prisons during the period of their imprisonment.
  • They repeatedly launched protests with the prison authorities and made all possible efforts to see that the rigours of prison life are mitigated and prisoners are humanely treated.

After Independence:

  • Mulla Committee: (All India Committee on Jail Reforms 1980-83) – 
  • The basic objective of the Committee was to review the laws, rules and regulations keeping in view the overall objective of protecting society and rehabilitating offenders. It recommended a total ban on the heinous practice of clubbing together juvenile offenders with hardened criminals in prisons.
  • The committee suggested setting up of a National Prison Commission as a continuing body to bring about modernisation of prisons in India.
  • To constitute an All India Service called the Indian Prisons and Correctional Service for the recruitment of Prison Officials.
  • After-care, rehabilitation and probation should constitute an integral part of prison service.
  • The conditions of prison should be improved by making adequate arrangements for food, clothing, sanitation and ventilation etc.
  • Lodging of undertrial in jails should be reduced to bare minimum and they should be kept separate from the convicted prisoners.
  • Government should make an endeavour to provide adequate resources and funds for prison reforms.
  • Krishna Iyer Committee: 
  • It was constituted in 1987 for women prisoners. It has recommended induction of more women in the police force in view of their special role in tackling women and child offenders.

What other reforms must be there

  • The women prisoners should be treated more generously and allowed to meet their children frequently.
  • The prisoners belonging to peasant class should be afforded an opportunity to go to their fields during harvesting season on temporary ‘ticket on leave’ so that they can look after their agriculture.
  • The prison legislation should make provision for remedy of compensation to prisoners who are wrongfully detained or suffer injuries to callous or negligent acts of the prison personnel.
  • It is gratifying to note that in recent decades the SC has shown deep concern for prisoners’ right to justice and fair treatment and requires prison officials to initiate measures so that prisoners’ basic rights are not violated and they are not subjected to harassment and inhuman conditions of living. (SC judgement in case of undertrials under 436A of IPC)
  • There is dire need to bring about a change in the public attitude towards the prison institutions and their management. This is possible through intensive publicity programmes using the media of press, platform and propaganda will.
  • Last but not the least, the existing Prison Act, 1894 which is more than a century old, needs to be thoroughly revised and even re-stated in view of the changed socioeconomic and political conditions of India over the years. Many of the provisions of this Act have become obsolete and redundant

Prison reforms and some fundamentals

  • It is not prison buildings, but what goes on inside them that needs change.
  • The government recently announced a Rs. 4,000-crore package for prison reforms as part of the National Prison Policy being implemented by the Centre.
  • This policy will redefine prisons as correctional homes.
  • Prison buildings will have cells with cushioned beds and clean toilets, closed-circuit TV cameras, video-conferencing facilities, and space for yoga, sports and extracurricular activities.
  • The situation of the prisons in our country came into focus in the early 1980s.
  • 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 PIL petitions on custodial conditions, and judges like Justice P.N. Bhagwati and Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer passed landmark judgments.
  • These steps brought much needed relief to thousands of undertrials, who were released on personal bond or simply discharged.
  • However, the situation on the ground seems to get worse by the day.
  • The government has set up working groups, committees and commissions to investigate the issue and offer solutions. The most important among them were the Justice Mulla Committee Report on Prison Reforms (1982-83) and the Justice Krishna Iyer Committee on Women Prisoners (1986-87). The latest Draft National Policy on Prison Reforms and Correctional Administration, 2007, prepared by the BPR&D.
  • Draft policy includes suggestions for changes to the Prisons Act of 1894.
  • These include the introduction of a provision to provide for aftercare and rehabilitation services and the appointment of officers to provide legal aid for prisoners.
  • Also envisaged are the establishment of a Research and Development wing, and financial assistance to NGOs working for the rehabilitation of prisoners and community-based alternatives to imprisonment for offenders convicted for relatively minor offences.
  • In seeking to improve prison conditions, we have to first address the low personnel- population ratio compared to countries that have more effective justice delivery systems.
  • Governments tend to refuse to fill up vacancies and augment the staff strength across criminal justice wings.
  • We need to create departments of correctional services, instead of just renaming prisons as correctional homes.
  • We need to give financial and infrastructure support to voluntary organisations working on the rights, welfare and rehabilitation of custodialised populations.