The Prison Reform in India: An Urgent Need

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This article is written by Mr. SUMIT KUMAR VERMA, 2nd year B.A.L.L.B student from Jagran Lakecity University, School of Law, Bhopal (M.P.)


In India, the miserable conditions of prison have always been a hot topic of debate. Prisons in our country face a lot of problems like overcrowding, bad health conditions of prisoners, custodial torture & other inhumane conditions. The situation got even worse during the covid pandemic times. Our courts, from time to time, have emphasized on the point that even prisoners can't be denied certain basic fundamental rights & also framed numerous guidelines for prison reforms but the situation is still not up to the mark. The legislature has always been neglecting the issue & now the time has come when we need a proper framework for conditions of prisons in India.

Historical Background:

Prior to independence:

The prison reforms in India were originated by TB Macaulay. A Discipline and Inquiry Committee was set up in the Year 1835, which submitted its report in the Year 1838. The committee highlighted the issue of corruption in the prison administration and it specifically recommended for the construction of Central Jails.

In the Year 1864, the second Commission for Inquiry was made, which gave similar recommendations as the earlier committee. But in addition to this, it gave some specific recommendations for improvement in food, clothing, bedding conditions of accommodation and medical aid.

In the Year 1888 on recommendations of the Fourth jail committee, a draft was formulated. This bill became law in the Year 1894 with Viceroy assent. The contemporary jail administration of India is governed by this Act without any substantial changes to the Act. However, the prison reforms continued to the reviewed. In 1920, the Indian jail committee for the 1st time in the history of prison reforms discussed the reform as well as the rehabilitation of prisoners as objective. The enactment of the Government of India Act 1935 resulted in a shift of the subject of prisons to the Provincial Government. This removed the prospect of national legislation on the subject.


In Year 1949, Pakwasa Committee was set up for prison reforms. It gave sanction to take work from the prisoners in making the roads and for it wages shall be paid. The punishment of the prisoners was also reduced on the ground of their good behavior.

The Government of India in the Year 1951, invited United Nations experts to give their suggestions for prison reforms. The committee recommended for transforming jails into reformation centers. In Year 1957, on the basis of the committee’s recommendations, the government of India appointed Mulla Committee to prepare Model Prison Manual. The committee gave its report in the Year 1960. In India till now, The manual of 1960 acts as a guiding principle for jail administration.

In the Year 1987, the Indian Government also appointed Krishna Iyer Committee to examine the conditions of women in prison. The committee recommended for appointment of more women staff in prisons to handle women and child offenders.

An attempt was made to rescind the 1894 Prison Act and bring in new legislation in 1998, on the direction of the Supreme Court in the case Ramamurthy v. State of Karnataka to bring uniformity in prison laws and formulate a model prison manual. The new bill was never passed.

Existing Problems in Prisons:


The jails in India have been housing more inmates than their capacity for decades now and this issue of overcrowded jails has only worsened. 

The report by the Human Rights Watch, 1991 mentioned overcrowding in prisons as a big issueThe Jail Committee report of 1980-83 stated that the incarceration of undertrials in prisons is the main cause of overcrowding. The report also stated that the prisons were so overcrowded that the prisoners had to sleep in shifts.

As stated, this was the cause in 1980 and till now it is the same. According to the report on prison statistics 2019, the total of jails is to 4,03,700 inmates whereas it is accommodating 4,78,600 out of which 3,30,487 are undertrials that account for 69 percent of the total inmates.

This overcrowding problem in prisons has the harmful effect of eliminating isolation between convicts who have been convicted for serious and minor offenses. Consequently, hardened criminals will be able to leverage over other prisoners. Juvenile offenders detained in jails due to lack of alternative places to incarcerate them come into contact with hardened offenders and hence is likely to become professional offenders.

Lack of medical attention:

The well-being of prisoners is another major concern that requires the attention of prison officials. Lack of space in prison caused due to overcrowding give rise to mental and physical health issues in prisoners. This also create lack of sanitation facilities and consequences into diseases caused to prisoners which are rarely treated due to lack in proper medical care.

The jail committee of 1980-83 adverted the pathetic conditions of the cell. It mentioned that most of the washrooms in prisons were not having a proper water supply and many washrooms were not available at night so many of them available used to overflow at night. These unhygienic conditions result in infectious diseases to prisoners.

Custodial Torture:

In India, the use of torture on prisoners by police officials has really become an ordinary phenomenon in police custody. Although Indian law considers extra-judicial confession as inadmissible but still the police torture the under-trial prisoners to the extent that many times they die in the custody.

According to Prison Statistics 2019 released by National Crime Records Bureau, a total number of 1,775 deaths were recorded in prisons in the Year 2019 out of which 165 were unnatural deaths.

Custodial Rape:

A large number of women in prisons are sexually abused and raped by police officials. There is no accurate data available related to how much custodial rape took place till now. But during the time of national emergency several cases of custodial rape have emerged:

  1. In the Mathura rape case (1979), in this case, an Adivasi girl aged 16 years old, was called to the police station in Maharashtra for investigation and asked to stay back while her family left. After that, she was raped by 2 policemen.

  2. In the Rameeza Bee rape case (1978), in this case, Rameeza Bee aged 26 years old lady was arrested by police in Andhra Pradesh. After that, she was raped by 3 policemen. Her husband was beaten up and murdered by police because he tried to protect her.

  3. In the Maya Tyagi rape case (1980), Maya Tyagi, a 6-month pregnant lady was arrested by police on some false charges. After that, she was beaten up and gang raped in police custody.

Lack of legal aid:

In our country, legal aid is only available to those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer during the trial, not when the captives are taken to the remand court. Since a large number of inmates, both in custody and in prison have never been prosecuted. The lack of legal aid before the trial significantly the lessen the value of the country’s legal representation system for the disadvantaged.

The right of free legal aid to accused persons has also been recognised under section 304 of Code of Criminal Procedure. The same has also been laid down by the apex court in case of Ajmal Kasab v. State of Maharashtra & many others ruling of the Supreme Court.   


The problem of overcrowding can be addressed by reducing the under trials to a bare minimum. A quick trail of the under trials is necessary. Apart from this Open Prisons can help to address the problems of overcrowding as well as reformation and rehabilitation of inmates. According to Prison Statistics 2015, the open prison in the state of Rajasthan is amongst the best practices in prisoner’s welfare. The prisoners at the open prison of Udaipur carry their small business like a Tea shop and they return back to prison in the evening. They are permitted to live with their families in the prison. Some of them are murder and rape convicts. According to the report these prisons have existed for decades, however, no complaints of any inmates escaping have come forward. They do not pose any threat to the society and they intend to continue their work after their sentence is finished and aspire to live a peaceful life.

Open prison provides for self-development and socialization, prisoners are allowed to socialize with the outside world and can live with their family so they still are a part of society. Open prisons also prove out to be advantageous even to the state as the cost occurred on the maintenance of the prisoners can be taken out from the income of the prisoners. In 2017 The supreme court has directed states to establish at least one open prison in ever district and utilise the same to its full capacity. According to the Prison Statistics report 2019, in India only 17 states have reported about the function of an open prison. Currently, there are 86 open prisons and the highest number are in Rajasthan with 39 prisons and Maharashtra with 19 prisons.

Apart from open prisons, there is a need of the separation of male and female offenders and the convicts of small offences should be kept separately from offenders of serious crimes.

The central as well as the state governments shall work to ensure that no torture of the prisoners is done by police. It is imperative to understand that the prisoners are no less human and should be treated with human dignity. Proper food, clothing, sanitation and good medical facilities should be provided to them. The police staff should be trained to handle the inmates with humanity. Corruption in the police department should be controlled.

The children of the female offenders who live with them in prisons as well as those who are born in prison should be given proper care. There mental and physical health needs are to be looked after. All the inmates must be treated with dignity and all of them must be given educational and vocational training. Access of newspapers and television for informative shows should be given to them. The prisoners should be given training in yoga and meditation. This will help them in achieving peace of mind.


From the above discussion, it is quite clear that the conditions of prisons in our country is not so good. The problems highlighted in this article have been the same even since the pre-independence time. Our prisons are still overcrowded & in very bad conditions. Daily news of custodial torture/deaths is not a surprise anymore. Recently, we have seen the death of Stan Swamy which has again raged the prisoners’ rights activists. Governments rarely seem to care about these problems. But it must be noted that in a country governed by rule of law, no one can be denied of basic human rights even the prisoners. Government must come up with some sort of regulations for countering these problems.

2. Ibid
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ramamurthy v. State of Karnataka, A.I.R. 1997 S.C. 1739
7. Human Rights Watch, 1991 link;
8. than-capacity-69-of-all-prisoners-in-india-are undertrials/496211/
10. Report of All India Committee on Jail Reforms, Para 3.7 p.21 (Vol. I 1980-83).
12 Sheo Kumar Gupta and Others vs. State of U.P., AIR 1978 All 386, 1978(37) FLR 118]from
13. The Rameeza Bee rape case (1978), from
14. [Tukaram and others vs. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1979 SC 185], from
15. Ajmal Kasab v. State of Maharashtra (2012) 9 SCC 1
17. Ibid

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