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“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 one.”[1] word spoken by South African President Nelson Mandela who spent nearly three decades in prison and later worked to promote humane conditions in prison. Prison reform and the welfare of prisoners were also at the heart of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas.

Gandhi said, Hate the sin, not the sinner. [2]The message of these peace icons who themselves spent years in prison was to create a fair and humane justice system that not just punishes those who commit a crime, but also helps them reform and reintegrate with society.

The purpose of this manuscript is to examine why prison reform is necessary and the need for attitudinal change among the public towards those who are incarcerated. Besides reviewing the steps taken since Independence for the betterment of Indian prisons, we have also considered the most pertinent issues and current concerns pertaining to the prison system in India and how they can be resolved.

Keywords: Prison Reform, Reintegration, Overcrowding, Trials, Infrastructure, International Consequences


This paper is committed to assessing and inspecting the need for prison reform and its significance in rehabilitating the prisoners as well as reintegrating them back into society. It likewise emphasizes the serious issues regarding the current prison system.

When it comes to prison reform, the common response of people regarding prison reform is “Why prison reform? What is the need for prison reform?” Since they believe that the people in prisons are the only ones who have committed crimes, and have breached the consciousness of society, and are thus considered criminals. Such thinking raises questions, such as: why should we have any sympathy with these criminals, why should we watch out for their basic needs and rights, they deserve harsh treatment and poor living conditions. Therefore, a prisoner who comes to prison and leaves is often branded as a criminal.

But a prisoner is not a criminal, he is an offender who has violated the law in one way or another and that's why he or she is in prison. Although some of them may be gangsters or habitual criminals, but they are in the same percentage that we see in normal society. As per the NCRB report, by 2019 only 3.6 percent of the total no. of convicts in the prison are hardened criminals. [3]And then there is another set of people that we have in the prison who are the undertrials, who have not been proved guilty yet, whether they have committed the crime or not. Therefore, there is a need for attitudinal change among the public when we think about the people in prison.

And when it comes to providing basic needs to the prisoners and ensuring that their rights are not violated, even the Supreme Court has stated that prisoners also have human rights and cannot be kept in jail like animals [4]and also in the case of State of Maharashtra v. Prabhakar Pandurang Sanzgiri, Supreme Court stated that the mere fact that someone is detained cannot deprive one of his fundamental rights and that such conditions are not to be extended to the extent of the deprivation of fundamental rights of the detained individual.[5]

What are we looking at, actually in this paper, when it comes to prison reforms?

It is very important to understand that those inside the prison will come out one day, unless and until they are unable to live or survive. Otherwise, they will come out one day. That is why we need proper reformatory systems. It is also crucial to consider a prisoner's holistic development. When someone gets inside a jail, the authorities need to keep in mind that the prisoner's life changes and the prisoner has to cope with everything from a new identity to all kinds of pressures and issues inside the jail, and it becomes difficult for an inmate and his or her family to survive under those changing circumstances.

This is why it is important to raise the issue of prison reforms because if we do not reform them, if we don't take care of them properly, if we don't focus on their human rights, the prisoners will not be reformed human beings when they come out. They may cause even greater harm to society.

Therefore, we need a proper manual to bring behavioural changes in the prisoners, so that when they come back to the society they do not pick up crime again. Prisons must become corrective institutions and not breeding grounds for hardened criminals, who remain a menace to society. Therefore, all these aspects are closely intertwined with reform, rehabilitation, reintegration, and infrastructure, as well as the way we think about prisoners.

Since independence, what have we done in the area of prison reform?

Since independence, various committees have been appointed on prison reform, such as the All India Jail Manual Committee, Model Prison Manual, Working Group on Prisons, Mulla Committee, Krishna Iyer Committee.[6] Each has made very important recommendations from time to time. Even the Supreme Court appointed the Justice Roy Committee to examine the various problems in prisons. This committee gave very important recommendations for prison reform,[7] but none of these recommendations have been implemented properly throughout the country.

The main reason for the non-implementation of these recommendations is that prison is a state subject and every state has the freedom to make changes to the law. Every state can make its own laws and implement them. This sometimes leads to more complex situations, and that is why a country like India finds it difficult to consider prison reform. We know that among the 3 categories of Criminal Justice reforms which include reforming the Judiciary and the Justice System, Reforming the Police, and Reforming Prisons, prison reforms get the least attention despite being equally important to society at large. For this reason, it is often said that Prisons serve as a place of recruitment for the army of crime.

Most pertinent issues and current concerns pertaining to the prison system in India and the possible solutions for them

There are various problems that our prisons and prisoners are facing, but the most prominent issues are – Overcrowding, Corruption, Shortage of trained prison staff, Women prisoners with children, and Inadequate social reintegration programs.

Overcrowding - NCRB 2019 data indicates that there are 1350 operational jails in India, with a total capacity of about 4 lakh prisoners, but the actual number is higher than 4.78 lakh. Prisons on average have an occupation rate of 118.5%. Of these, 69.05% (approx. 3.3 lakh) of the total prisoners were on trial and only 30.11% were convicted of their crimes.[8]

Delay in Trials - In general, undertrials spend three months to five years in jail before getting bail. There are a lot of prisoners who were not required to be arrested at all. However, they have been booked on false charges and are kept in jails for many years. They then get justice from the court after spending so many years in prison. The court states that they never committed the crime for which they spent so many years in prison. It completely ruins their lives, as well as that of their families. A major reason for this delay in justice is that in most cases, there are no adequate means to transport these prisoners from the prison to the court for trial or bail, so the trial takes longer to complete.

International Consequences - The consequences of overcrowding are not only national but also international. If we do not improve the prison conditions inside the country, we will never get any of the fugitives who have fled the country to be deported or extradited to India. Because one of the conditions for extradition is prison reform under the UN Convention Against Torture. This was the reason why India lost the case of bringing KIM DEVY from Denmark who is accused of the PURULIA ARMS DROP CASE.

Infrastructure - And when we look at the number of prisons included in India, in the last 20 years possibly there are very few states which have built new jails. So we are basically living in the jail, which we built in the 1980s. Therefore, when it comes to prison infrastructure, there's a need to realize that as the population grows, the crime rates will also increase, the number of undertrial prisoners will also increase but there has not been any reform in the allocation of financial resources, which is allocated to the prisons for building a prison. Nobody builds it, because they are not a political constituency.

If we do not build prisons with a population of 10 million, it becomes 20 million, or basically, the number of industrial visitors will increase. So the state ought to allocate more resources, because at the end of the day, whether it’s an Undertrial prisoner, a convicted prisoner, or a gangster, there is one thing which is absolutely clear: we cannot keep any prisoner in inhuman and degrading condition. So when you have 177% overcrowding in certain prisons, the fact remains that people do not even have the time to sleep, so they must be rotating themselves to sleep. So is there a condition the government of India can justify under any circumstances? Forget about the European countries, inside the country? Under the Constitution of India? Can we justify it anyway? So that's the critical issue, we have to allocate more money to build more prisons, not necessarily do we want to put more prisoners, but we have to realize that the population is increasing so there is pressure on our current prisons. So as far as infrastructure is concerned, we need more resources, more money to be put into.

Hardened Criminals - Another major consequence of overcrowding is that the hardened criminals and other prisoners being kept together, let us take the example of Maharashtra where the occupancy rate is about 152.7% [9]due to which one of the major challenges, in particular, that is peculiar to Maharashtra jails is that all of the jails in Maharashtra mostly Mumbai house different kinds of offenders, which include terrorists from within the country and also from abroad, blast convicts and also members of the underworld, mafia, etc. So when there is overcrowding of criminals involved in petty theft, petty crime, and their house together with hardened criminals belonging to organized crime, or with terrorists, we may even have informal training schools inside the prison where from a petty criminal you can graduate into a member of an organized crime syndicate or a terrorist group.

Steps that can be taken to solve the problem of overcrowding as well as problems related to overcrowding –

1. Giving adequate work to the prisoners which earns remission, and leads to early release,

2. Increasing the budget for the construction of new prisons,

3. Making sure that there is availability of E-Courts in every prison so that delay in the trial due to the problem in escorting the prisoners from the prisons to the court is solved,

4. Also it is very important that the gangster or hardened criminals should have separate sort of cells or separate zones.