Inhuman conditions in Indian prisons

GS 2 : Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation

Source : The Indian Express dated 27/05/2021
Reference :

Context : The raging COVID-19 pandemic has turned the spotlight on Indian prisons and the recent hearings in the Bhima Koregaon case have raised the core issue of prison conditions in general as well as overcrowding, an absence of accountability and monitoring, which seriously endanger prisoners’ right to health and therefore, a right to a life with dignity, under Article 21.


  • ‘Prisons’ is a State subject under Seventh Schedule to the Constitution. Administration and management of prisons is the responsibility of respective State Governments.
  • However, the Ministry of Home Affairs provides regular guidance and advice to States and UTs on various issues concerning prisons and prison inmates.

Issues with Indian prisons

  • Rampant overcrowding
    • Since 2000, the prisoner population across the world went up by 20%, but in India, that number was a staggering 71%.
    • In 2018, the average occupancy rate of prisons was 117.6%. However, these numbers vary across states and types of prisons.
  • Undertrials
    • Sixty seven percent of the people in Indian jails are undertrials – those detained in prisons during trial, investigation or inquiry but not convicted of any crime in a court of law.
    • It is 11% in the UK, 20% in the US and 29% in France.
  • There is a gap between the number of prisoners eligible to be released and actually released, under Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
    • Section 436A allows undertrials to be released on a personal bond if they have undergone half of the maximum term of imprisonment they would have faced if convicted.
    • In 2016, out of 1,557 undertrials found eligible for release under Section 436A, only 929 were released.
  • Unnatural deaths
    • doubled between 2015 and 2016, from 115 to 231.
    • The rate of suicide among prisoners also increased by 28%, from 77 suicides in 2015 to 102 in 2016
    • The National Human Rights Commission in 2014 had stated that on average, a person is one-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide in prison than outside. 
  • Neglect of mental health
    • the NCRB had said that about 6,013 individuals with mental illness were in jail in 2016.
    • There was only one mental health professional for every 21,650 prisoners in 2016, with only six States and one Union Territory having psychologists /psychiatrists.
    • Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the three States with the most prisoners with mental illness, did not have a single psychologist or psychiatrist.
  • Severe staff crunch
    • While 33% of the total requirement of prison officials still lies vacant, almost 36% of vacancy for supervising officers is still unfulfilled.
    • Delhi’s Tihar jail ranks third in terms of a severe staff crunch-The manpower recruited inside this prison is almost 50% short of its actual requirement.
  • Women prisoners
    • Since 2000, the rate of increase in the number of women prisoners (111.7%) was twice than that of the world rate.
    • There are just 9.6 % women across all levels of the prison administration in comparison to the 33 per cent suggested in policy documents.
Prison reforms undertaken in India

Recently the Supreme Court had in appointed the Justice Roy Committee to examine the various problems plaguing prisons, from overcrowding to lack of legal advice to convicts to issues of remission and parole.

Way forward

  • Implementation of Justice Roy committee recommendations including
    • Every new prisoner should be allowed a free phone call a day to his family members to see him through his first week in jail.
    • Modern cooking facilities, canteens to buy essential items and trial through video-conferencing should be made available.
    • Speedy trial remains one of the best ways to remedy the unwarranted phenomenon of over-crowding.
    • There should be at least one lawyer for every 30 prisoners, which is not the case at present.
    • Special fast-track courts should be set up to deal exclusively with petty offences which have been pending for more than five years.
  • Law commission recommendations
    • Amending the bail provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code with emphasis on the early release on bail of under trials.
    • Under trials who have completed onethird of the maximum sentence for offences up to seven years be released on bail.
    • Those who are awaiting trial for offences punishable with imprisonment of more than seven years should be bailed out if they have completed one-half of their sentences
    • Comprehensive anti-torture legislation on lines of Draft anti-torture legislation (suggested by 273rd report)
  • House arrest
    • The May 12 judgment of the SC urges courts to actively use the option of house arrest in cases where “age, health conditions and antecedents of the accused” are a criterion.
    • The familiarity of the undertrial with her or his place of residence and the ability to get prompt medical attention must surely bend courts towards actively using and implementing this as an option.
  • Creation of a specialised All India Prison Service along the lines of the IPS or IAS.
    • In line with various prison reform committee reports like the Justice Mulla Committee on Prison Reforms Report (1983) and the Justice Krishna Iyer Committee on Women Prisoners Report (1987)
  • Manage prisons in line with the Nelson Mandela rules(The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners)
  • Case study for Open jails from Kerala
    • Nettukaltheri jail in Trivandrum
    • With 200 acres of rubber plantation, a 20-acre vegetable garden, a dairy farm, a goat farm, a poultry farm and even a check dam for irrigation purposes and freshwater fish cultivation
    • the highest income generating jail in Kerala.
    • brings in in Rs 2 crore annually


Nelson Mandela once said,” 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. “

Hence, as the nation passes through probably the worst phase of the COVID 19 pandemic, it is more imperative than ever for authorities to determine the urgent interventions necessary for safeguarding the fundamental right to life of prisoners. 

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