Prisoners’ Rights; are we neglecting them?

In India, the debates around prison reforms and rights of prisoners have been very limited. Through our three-part series we seek to initiate a debate towards prisoners’ civil and political rights. This series will cover prisoners’ right to vote, to write and to strike with the understanding that these rights, if granted, will expand the ever so shrinking spaces for an incarcerated person to express and reach out to the world outside highlighting conditions of the prison and their experiences, including those of torture. Prisons in the modern democracy have been envisioned as reformative care-giving institutions. However, the reality of prisons is that there is overcrowding; inhuman living conditions; a dearth of basic needs such as access to food, medical treatment and cleanliness; absence of accountability and transparency of administration, targeting and surveillance, torture and even death; least of opportunities of skill building or recreation. Why is this so? For one, society’s understanding of the treatment of prisoners is being highly influenced by the fear related to crime control and increasing targeting and etherisation of persons from certain socio-political affiliations. Being tough on crime through severest punishments is the new standard for good governance. Prisoners form a section of the society which is shunned, secluded and seldom talked about. Making matters worse is the fact that no document declares mandatory rights of prisoners, leaving it up to the changing governments and changing moods of the society.

The Constitution of India empowers us with one of the basic fundamental rights – Right to life and Personal Liberty mentioned in Article 21 which implicitly states the right to life with dignity. Certain articles mentioned in our Constitution like Article 14, 20, 21, 22 deals with prisoner rights in India. Article 14 talks of equality of law whereas Article 20 prohibits self- incrimination and double jeopardy. Article 21 is vast in its own terms which state the right to life with personal liberty. Under its ambit, certain rights find its place like right to food, bail, speedy trial and free legal aid services. Article 21 provides prisoners with right against custodial violence and right to health in order to maintain basic human dignity. There have been certain legislations regarding prisoner rights in India. They have several other rights like right against inhuman treatment inside the jail, right to consult a lawyer and right against solitary confinement.  Right to interview and meet with friends and family is one the important prisoner rights.

According to the 2016 policy, the latest one, published by Government of India regarding prison management in the form of Model Prison Manual 2016, a “Perspective” chapter from the manual states:

“India shares the universally held view that a sentence of imprisonment would be justifiable only if it ultimately leads to the protection of society against crime. Such a goal could be achieved only if incarceration motivates and prepares the offender for a law-abiding and self-supporting life after his release. It further accepts that, as imprisonment deprives the offender of his liberty and self-determination, the prison system should not be allowed to aggravate the suffering already inherent in the process of incarceration.”

This perspective is a result of various judgments pronounced by the Supreme Court of India in the last several decades, in which the prison administration has been reprimanded regarding the inhuman living conditions in prisons and animal-like treatment of prisoners. The United Nation’s Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners also call for the dignified treatment of prisoners leading to their reintegration to into society and no further infliction of pain other than the imprisonment itself.

Following are the rights of prisoners which are implicitly provided under the Article 21 of the Constitution of India:-

  • Right of inmates of protective homes
  • Right to free legal aid
  • Right to speedy trial
  • Right against cruel and unusual punishment
  • Right to fair trial
  • Right against custodial violence and death in police lock-ups or encounters
  • Right to live with human dignity

Apart from these rights of prisoners Constitution of India also provides following rights to the prisoners:-

  • Right to meet friends and consult lawyer
  • Rights against solitary confinement, handcuffing & bar fetters and protection from torture
  • Right to reasonable wages in prison

Prisoner’s Rights under the Prisons Act, 1894

Prisons Act, of 1894 is the first legislation regarding prison regulation in India. This Act mainly focus on reformation of prisoners in connection with the rights of prisoners. Following Sections of the Prisons Act, 1894 are related with the reformation of prisoners:-

  • Accommodation and sanitary conditions for prisoners
  • Provision for the shelter and safe custody of the excess number of prisoners who cannot be safely kept in any prison
  • Provisions relating to the examination of prisoners by qualified Medical Officer
  • Provisions relating to separation of prisoners, containing female and male prisoners, civil and criminal prisoners and convicted and under trial prisoners
  • Provisions relating to treatment of under trials, civil prisoners, parole and temporary release of prisoners.

 In the year of 2016 the Parliament has been passed the Prisons (Amendment) Bill, 2016 to amend the Prisons Act, 1894 with a view to provide protection and welfare of the prisoners.


It can be said that the prisoners are also entitled to all his fundamental rights while they are behind the prisons. Indian Constitution does not expressly provides for the prisoners’ rights but Articles 14, 19 and 21 implicitly guaranteed the prisoners’ rights and the provisions of the Prisons Act, 1894 contains the provisions for the welfare and protection of prisoners. The Court has ruled that it can intervene with prison administration when constitutional rights or statutory prescriptions are transgressed to the injury of the prisoner. Supreme Court in many cases held that prisoner is a human being, a natural person and also a legal person. Being a prisoner he does not cease to be a human being, natural person or legal person. Conviction for a crime does not reduce the person into a non-person, whose rights are subject to the whim of the prison administration and therefore, the imposition of any major punishment within the prison system is conditional upon the absence of procedural safeguards.

Categories: India, Law and Order