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Written by: Aakriti Verma

The depth of the flaws that plague the prison system and the urgency that it calls for reforms.

“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

Prisons are a subject matter of the state and are mentioned under Schedule 7 of the Indian Constitution. The Prisons Act, of 1894, and the Prison Manual of the respective states govern the legislation made concerning prisons in India. The primary purpose of prisons is reforming the person in conflict with the law, as well as assisting them in reintegrating into society.


The UN Charter and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 states that, no torture or inhuman punishment should take place and that the inmates should be treated with inherent dignity. Despite the existence of regulations like these, inmates are treated pitifully and terribly. Mohammad Amir Khan was arrested on terror allegations when he was 18 years old, in 1998. For 14 years, he was kept in the jails of Tihar and Ghaziabad, sometimes in solitary confinement. He was tormented, subjected to anti-Muslim slurs, forced to drink water laced with detergent, given electric shocks, and had his nails broken with pliers during those 14 years. He was made to sign blank papers as a result of this. In 2012, he was acquitted on 17 of the 19 charges he faced. Despite this, he advocated for a rehabilitation policy for others who suffer at the hands of the system, such as himself.

Section 330 and 348 of the Indian Penal Code, 1872, call for liability for actions considered as torture but do not attract relevance if a crime is committed by a police officer. Section 436A[1] of CrPC, 1973, talks about eligibility for release of undertrials on personal bonds, who have completed a detention period of half of the maximum sentence for the crime for which they were jailed. Despite, these guidelines, prison officials are unaware of the applicability of Section 436A. With the widespread use of methods of torture to extract information and in cases of investigation, prison officials have long crossed and forgotten the line that was in place to ensure humane treatment of the inmates.

According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2019, the prisoner occupancy rate (the number of inmates in jails compared to the authorised capacity of 100 inmates) in states like Madhya Pradesh (155.3), Uttar Pradesh (167.9), Delhi (174.9), Maharashtra (152.7), and others is higher than the national average[2]. In 2019, India's jails had the most congestion in ten years. According to the 2019 data, occupancy is about 118 per cent. Overcrowding in jails leads to poor hygiene and overstretching of resources. In jails, this negates the aim of reform because inmates have no personal space. Reformation cannot take place in a crowded environment with more individuals than is required.

Around 75 per cent of the total inmates were undertrials by the end of 2020 according to NCRB Prison Statistics 2020. There are above 30,000 undertrials in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and between 15000-30,000 undertrials in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan[3]. Within the trial process, there are systemic difficulties. Despite Article 21's promise that no one will be deprived of life or liberty except through the due process of law, the NCRB data shows that the number of people dying in prison while awaiting their trials is increasing. Undertrials are there for longer than they would have stayed if they would have been convicted and finished their sentence.

Another issue is that prisons have turned into centres of corruption. The prisoners are treated as clients who pay the prison staff to provide services. Prison staff allow illegal activities inside the prison. The staff is unprofessional and preferential treatment is given. Criminal politicians have cell phones and run gyms inside prisons.

Prisons become a spot for the amalgamation of petty criminals and hardened criminals. Mumbai jail houses a variety of criminals including members of the underworld, mafia, and terrorists. When petty criminals are housed with these big terrorists, prisons turn into informal schools and act as a recruitment ground. It is easy to integrate petty criminals into syndicates and cartels. Kashmir prisons also act as recruiting grounds, and centres of planning and executing terrorist attacks. This defeats the concept and aims of prisons.

A large number of people don’t know why they are in the prison in the first place. People are inside due to mistaken identity and it takes them a whole lifetime to prove the accusations wrong. People who haven’t been served charge sheets should not be inside.

Mr. S.P. Vaid, a former J&K DSP, claims that the money allotted is not getting to the right spot. The states are not enforcing the adopted modules[4]. There is no agency in charge of jail personnel recruiting. Recruitment isn't done properly. Only wardens are hired in some states. Unlike police training infrastructure, there is no training infrastructure or policy in existence. For police officers, regional and state training institutions exist, but this is not the case for prison employees. In India, there are few training centres, and there is no adequate funding, budgets, training syllabus, or manual. Staff to inmate ratio is also skewed [5].

Another important issue is- how to restore the reputation that the prisoners have in the minds of other people in society? Once a person is labelled as a prisoner, that label overtakes every other skill that the person might possess. No legislation can be put in place for changing the way people might look at these prisoners. A holistic approach is required.


Proper utilisation of more effective ways of rehabilitation of people in conflict with the law. Open prison is a system in which convicts work on farms and factories. These prisons take a certain number of inmates to keep it going. There are around 77 open prisons in India. Not every state has an open jail and some are underutilised. Also, isolation chambers and high-security prisons are needed to stop the mixing of stone pelters with terrorists.

The system of E-courts was established as a result of COVID-19. This system can be used to improve the effectiveness of the hearing process. Many times, there isn't enough staff to transport people to court for bail hearings or trials; in these circumstances, E-court should be used. E- courts assist in speeding up the bail process and ensuring that no one in the jail who does not deserve to be there is present [6]. However, during COVID-19, it was discovered that many prisons lacked this capability. Video conferencing should be made possible and should be prioritised. If the inmates are unable to attend court, the courts should be brought to them [7]. People were given interim bail to decongest prisons to prevent the spread of covid 19. If it was possible to grant people bails, then why wasn’t it done before? Why did it take the threat of a virus to take a step which was much needed for years?

The people who are inside for minor infractions should be bailed out. The prison staff needs to be sensitised towards the prisoners. The structure of the composition of prison officials should be reconsidered. There should be an increase in the number of women. Prison staff should be diverse[8]. There should be no concentration of officers belonging to one caste or religion, otherwise, there is a bigger chance of domination by one group which may lead to the worse treatment of particular groups.

Skill imparting is an excellent method to help the prisoners. Prisoners are taught carpentry, leatherwork, plumbing etc. It also endows them with skills that they could use outside the prison to attain financial stability. The prisons of Delhi and Maharashtra are doing a great job at this. Prisons should also collaborate with academic institutions and the Government of India’s Department of Skills. Distance learning should also be encouraged.


In recent years, some states have recognised the need for change in the prison system and have taken steps to improve the operation and application of existing regulations. Punjab has drafted an amendment bill for the Prison Act of 1894. It calls for increased security, the prohibition of cell phone use, the prohibition of rioting inside the jail, and the destruction of jail property. It also discusses data computerization in prisons, secure prisoner custody, prisoner welfare, and prisoner aftercare. Karnataka Prison Reform Bill, 2021, includes a collection of biometric data including a blood sample, DNA sample, voice and Iris scan. This data was earlier collected for prisoners with more than one year term but now, it will also be collected for prisoners with a 1-month term. But, the availability of scientific infrastructure is under question. Chhattisgarh and Tripura are also coming up with similar bills.

Indian laws are good on paper but lack implementation. Prisoners have suffered at the hands of the state government. Prisons are an important part of the criminal justice system and a huge part of this is the aim for which prisons have been put into place- for rehabilitation and that cannot take place in the way the inmates are housed in the majority of the jails in India. Some states’ state of affairs has either stagnated or deteriorated. A 360- degree reform is much


1. The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

2. National Crime Records Bureau, 25 th Prison Statistics India 2019 (Ministry of Home Affairs)

3. National Crime Records Bureau, 26 th Prison Statistics India 2020 (Ministry of Home Affairs)

4. Interview with SP Vaid, Former Director-General of Police, J&K, Bharata First, May 20,2021.

5. Interview with SP Vaid, Former Director-General of Police, J&K, Bharata First, May 20,2021.

6. Interview with Meera Chadha Borwankar, Former DG, BPR&D, Sansad TV, October 23, 2021.

7. Interview with Vimala Mehra, Former DG (Prisons), Tihar Jail, Sansad TV, October 23, 2021.

8. Interview with Vipul Mudgal, Director of Common Cause, Bharata First, May

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