January 23, 2022

Do Prisoners have Right to Healthcare during Covid-19 pandemic?


When we look at the fact many number of prisoners are locked up in prison some waiting for their trial and others going through their punishment term. As per Prison Statistics India Report 2019, there were 4.78 lakh inmates in around 1,300 prisons in the country. It is obvious on the face that these inmates in such large amount were put in crowded cells; not equipped with basic facilities like legal aid, health and good quality food. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year, sudden spur in COVID-19 positive cases among prisoners results in worrisome situation.

This article will lead you to confirm that whether prisoners have right to healthcare and what are the provisions related and source of authority for prisoners’ rights. You will get to know what are the conventions related to Covid 19 prison reforms. We will also have a glance at the actions taken by Indian Judiciary and Government in this regard.

Who are prisoners?

A prisoner, also known as an inmate, is anyone who is deprived of liberty against their will. This can be by confinement, captivity, or by forcible restraint.

The prisons in Modern Democracy existed with aim is to provide reformative care to its inhabitants but grim reality is that this institution is overcrowded, inhumane living conditions and dearth of basic facilities like access to food , cleanliness and medical treatment, unaccounted death and infliction of unaccountable tortures by officials and government workers. One thing to notice is that the majority of inmates are from lower start of society this on very face shows the helplessness of them not able to access quality of legal aid and their chances of not being heard. As result many end up their whole life living in these poorly ventilated cells.

Prevalence of such type of perspective in common man’s mind various directive and judgements were pronounced by Indian Judiciary at intervals reprimanding prison administration for their neglected behaviours.  

Take for instance the current Covid19 period in which Pan India Lockdown was imposed and many directives and suggestion were given by medical professionals to maintain distance from each other to curb the spread of deadly coronavirus. We were locked in our homes comfortably in our rooms having access to good health facilities like check-up, nutritious food and family support but have anybody gave a thought about what are the  prisoners conditions in populated, dingy prisons. In this regard many laws and convention India had included in its prison management system.

International laws and convention

The rights and treatment of prisons are promoted through various international conventions and declaration like Universal declaration of Human rights, the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nation Minimum Rules for treatment of Prisoners and United Nation Basic principles for the treatment of Prisoners etc.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The general assembly of UN adopted Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on Dec. 10, 1948 with the aim to promote Human rights at global level. Article 1 of UDHR says that all human being are born free and are equal in dignity and rights. Article 2 says that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedom set forth in the Declaration without any type of distinction. It is clear that the term “all Human Beings” and “everyone” includes prisoners also. Article 3 says that everyone has right to life, safety and security. The right to life is the basic rights available to every human being including Prisoners. Article 5 says that no one shall be subjected to torture, cruel or inhumane treatment or punishment.

International Covenant On Civil And Political Rights

In relation to treatment of prisoners provisions were made in International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which was adopted by General Assembly on Dec. 16, 1966. In Article 6(1) every human have inherent right to life. Article 10 of ICCPR is a significant article in regard to treatment of Prisoners which states that all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. It also talks about distinction between accused and convicted prisoner and demand different treatment of both. However exception can be made in exceptional circumstances.

Right of Prisoner under Indian Laws

Prison Act, 1894

It is the first legislation regarding Prison regulation in India which contains law relating to smooth functioning of prisons rather than reformation and rehabilitation of Prisoners. Prison Law of 1984 is considered as one of the obsolete laws which only deal with regulation of Prison system not concern about reformation of prisoners and their conditions. In view of the shortcomings of 1894 law Indian Parliament in 2016 passed Prison (Amendment) Bill 2016 to provide protection and welfare of prisoners in present context and in tune with Indian Constitution. The amendment was made to include provisions regarding rehabilitation and socialization of prisoners to re-enter in society.

Indian Constitution

There is no specific mention provisions related to rights of prisoners but it is inferred from the various Judgments by Indian Judiciary that Article 14, 19 and 21 the inalienable trio of fundamental rights are guaranteed not only to common man but to Prisoners. Consider the fact that constitutional rights offered are not absolute in nature, subject to reasonable restrictions. The question which arises in one’s mind is why prisoners are guaranteed these fundamental rights as to freeman? The answer is despite the fact that a man is prisoner or wrongdoer he/she still is a human. Few examples of rights provided to prisoners under Constitution are right to speedy trial, right to free legal aid, right against torture or inhumane treatment.

Role of Indian Judiciary in safeguarding Prisoners’ right  

In Indian Democracy the role of Judiciary to safeguard the rights and principles mentioned in Indian Constitution. We have seen that quantum of laws and rules were made by legislator without any thought who should uphold, abide by them and who would be held accountable.  The Indian Judiciary plays an important part in clearing out the conflicts and solving problems. It is the only institution which implements the laws, make distinction between what is good or bad, make the whole system functioning. The Indian Judiciary broadened the ambit of Article 21 and developed human rights jurisprudence to provide safety for all humans including prisoners.

Landmark case law on Prisoners’ rights

Sunil Batra vs. Delhi Administration- in this case important suggestions were stated by Justice Krishna Iyer on safeguarding rights of Prisoners. It brought to light a host of issues, including the clashes between various fundamental rights and Prison Act, 1894.

  • affirms that where the rights of the prisoner either under the Constitution or under other law are violated the writ power of the Court should run to his rescue
  • Ruled that fundamental rights do not flee the person as he enters the prison although they may suffer shrinkage necessitated by incarceration.
  • The State shall take steps to keep up to the Standard Minimum Rules   for treatment   of   Prisoners recommended by the United Nations, especially those relating to work and wages, treatment with dignity, community contact and correctional strategies.


Supreme Court Recent Takes In Covid-19 Scenario

on 23 March 2020, the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the situation in prisons and passed several signi­ficant orders, which led to the constitution of high powered committees (HPCs) at the state level, headed by the chairperson of the State Legal Services Authority, to consider releasing on parole or interim bail inmates and the under trials for offences entailing up to 7-year jail term to decongest prisons in the wake of coronavirus pandemic.

Recently in May 2021, the surge in Covid cases made it a matter of concern. Supreme Court Bench headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana directed that those inmates, who were granted parole, pursuant to our earlier orders, should be again, granted parole for a period of 90 days in order to tide over the pandemic.



It can be inferred that human rights are most valuable and innate which cannot be shunned or avoided by anybody. All humans have the possession of the Fundamental rights whether he/she is a Criminal, Prisoner, beggar, rich or poor, and elites. These rights are governed by Conventions and UN Declarations at world level, in India these rights were provided and guaranteed by our Indian Constitution. It is implicit that there is no specific provision for Prisoners’ rights but can be understood from Article 14, 19, and 21 and from Prison Act, 1894. It has been stated in judgment of Sunil Batra that the Court can intervene with prison administration when prisoners’ rights get transgressed or violated. In many rulings Court specifies that Prisoners are natural or legal human beings who on conviction or incarceration reduce person to non-person. In recent Covid-19 time Supreme Court took Suo motu notice of prisoners’ condition in crowded cells and considers the fact that lack of health facilities made them more susceptible to disease. The Supreme Court Bench gave direction for decongestion of prison cells by releasing inmates for temporary period. Hence, Under International and National laws human rights the prisoners’ rights are upheld, it is the duty of every state to maintain and protect them. 

Related Posts


  • The Prison Act, 1894
  • The Constitution of India Bare Act
  • NewIndianXpress (Ed.). (2021, May 8). Supreme court Orders release of prisoners to decongest JAILS amid covid-19 second wave. The New Indian Express. https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2021/may/08/supreme-court-orders-release-of-prisoners-to-decongest-jails-amid-covid-19-second-wave-2300027.html.
  •  Sunil Batra vs. Delhi Administration, 1980 AIR 1579 https://indiankanoon.org/doc/778810/#:~:text=In%20Sunil%20Batra%20v.,suffer%20shrinkage%20necessitated%20by%20incarceration.
  • International covenant on civil and political rights. OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx.
  • https://ncrb.gov.in/sites/default/files/PSI-2019-27-08-2020.pdf
  • https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prisoner

Author: Shalini Kirar is a student at Institute of Law Nirma University, Ahmedabad.

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