July 31, 2021

Rights of Prisoners and its Development in India

Criminal law


Under the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘prisoner’, the term is defined as a person kept in prison as a punishment. It is described as an inmate who, against their will, is deprived of their liberty. Also, the right of prisoners under constitutional law, international human rights law, defines the duties that exist upon each State and individual to ensure no one gets harmed. The legal rights of prisoners involve the right to food, water, protection from torture, and to have an advocate to defend himself. Under the Indian Constitution, prisoners are entitled to rights as a normal human being under the procedure established by law. In the said article, the significant discussion would be about the evolution and the development of the concept in association with major statutes governing the right of prisoners.

Evolution of concept of Rights of Prisoners

The evolution of this concept was much impressed by the Anglo-American penal reforms bringing in the change within the custodial functioning. [1] Rights are legal, social principles of freedom and are considered the fundamental rules of people that have to be followed by the society.[2] In jurisprudence, the right is considered legal or moral action that every individual in the society has to follow to ensure recognition of each individual. Constitution expressly does not define the rights of prisoners. However, in the case of T.V. Vatheeswaran v. State of Tamil Nadu,[3] it stated that Article 14, 19 and 21 guarantees the right to life to prisoners just as free men.

The social environments and the development of society at different stages helped to structure the penal institutions leading to describing the jails and reference to legal concepts helping everyone to understand the system of prison and its evolution.[4] With the development within society, there was a lack of rationalization of prison reformation. As a consequence, the lowest priority was granted to prison in the criminal justice system of India.[5] In the ancient period, the prison conditions were barbaric, following the inhuman methods curtailing the right of the individual. After independence, the conditions of prison changed from barbaric to rehabilitation and reformation methods.

Rights of Prisoners: Development in India

In India, the discussion about prison reforms or the rights of prisoners is not entirely acknowledged. In a modern democracy, prisons have been as reformative care-giving institutions. On the contrary, reality differs as prisons have a lack of basic needs, food, medical treatment, and cleanliness. Society’s understanding of the concept of prison is limited to the fear of controlling crime and avoiding disturbance within the system. According to the Model Prison Manual 2016, India is of the view that a sentence of imprisonment is only justifiable when it ultimately leads to the protection of society. It could be achieved only when an offender after his release is motivated enough to ensure a law-abiding and self-supporting life. From the barbaric concept of prison, India has developed to rehabilitation form of prison.

In the Mulla Committee report, the rights of prisoners were enshrined, stating that just like other citizens of the country, they also have the right to dignity, basic minimum needs, communication, access to law, etc. Inclusion of the subject matter of prisons and institutions in the Concurrent List, 7th Schedule to the Constitution of India, was an enactment to ensure uniform legislation including modern principles regarding the reformation and rehabilitation of offenders.

1. Right to Legal Aid

The term ‘right to legal aid’ is not explicitly given in the Constitution. Through the 42nd Amendment Act, 1976, Free Legal Aid was introduced as one of the directive principles of state policy under Article 39A..

In Madhav Hayawadan Rao Hosket v. the State of Maharashtra[6], the Supreme Court stated that the government is obliged to offer assistance to the charged people under Article 21 and 39-A in association with Article 142 and 304 of Cr.PC.

Even though Article 39A is not enforceable by courts yet it is a direct reference of an article of the Constitution. It states that the government has an obligation towards its citizens that no unjust actions take place because of non-availability legal advice.

2. Right to a speedy trial

Section 309 of Cr.PC states the right of speedy trial. The right ensures equity in the criminal justice framework. However, the enforcement of these laws does not happen properly.

In A.R. Antulay v. R.S. Nayak[7], the court observed some recommendations that would ensure no violation of the human rights of prisoners. It stated that the right of speedy trial divulging out of Article 21 of the Constitution makes it applicable to charges at any stage like request, trail, examination, modification, etc.

3. Rights against inhuman treatment of prisoners

India being a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, should abide by the document called Human Rights Declaration. This document states the basic principle of administration of justice, such as:

  • No individual should get subjected to cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Everyone possesses the right to life, liberty of the person.
  • There should not exist arbitrary arrest, detention.
  • In the case of penal offense, every person has a right to be proved innocent until proved guilty.

In Raghubir Singh vs. the State of Bihar[8], the court expressed its outrage over police torture by punishing a cop who had been held responsible for the death of a suspect while in the police lock-up. Through this, it can be stated that human rights are an important part of human dignity and disrespecting that would lead to intervention by the court.

Major Statutes dealing with Rights of Prisoners

The Constitution of India grants prisoners the right to be treated alike as of the citizen of India. Article 14, 20(1), (2), 21, and 22(4-7) under Part III of the Indian Constitution guarantees the prisoners indirectly the right to be treated as a person in prison.

In Charles Sobaraj v. Supdt CentralJail Tihar[9], the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that imprisonment of an individual does not deprive him of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Article 21 r/w Article 19(1)(d) & (5) can be brought to wider interpretation describing its applicability to the standards of decency and dignity and marking the progress of a matured society. To produce a prison justice fair procedure is ensured under Article 21 along with reasonable restrictions as read in Article 19(5) and removing arbitrariness from the system as specified under Article 14 of the Constitution.

The Prisons Act, 1894, is the first legislation regarding the regulation of prison in India. The regulation includes provisions protecting prisoners rights such as:

  • Accommodation and sanitary conditions for prisoners.
  • The mental and physical State of prisoners.
  • The medical officer has to be in charge of the examination of prisoners.
  • The prisoners should be separated based on gender, the acts committed, and under trial prisoners.

India being a signatory to the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, should abide by the said instrumental treaty because it plays a significant role in the protection of the rights of the prisoners. The provisions of the covenants are:

  • The persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with dignity and humanity.
  • No individual shall be arrested on the ground if unable to fulfill the obligations of a contract.
  • The right to liberty and security shall be granted.


Through the observations, we can state that prisoners are certified for their fundamental rights even when they are behind bars. The Indian Constitution does not expressly grant the rights of prisoners, but Article 14, 19, and 21 ensures the rights of prisoners. The Prisons Act, 1894, provides for government aid and protection for detainees. It has been rightly acknowledged in favor of prisoners, giving them the status as that of any other individual and not depriving them of fundamental rights.

The Supreme Court has often held that a prisoner is an individual. Having a prisoner does not invalidate from becoming a human. A conviction for misconduct does not transform the individual to a non-individual whose privileges rest on the discretion of the prison institution. A lot has been changed. The contours of rationality have widened, leading to the recognition of prisoners in a manner that, after their release, they become a human being who could serve the nation in a law-abiding manner with the ability to self-support themselves.

For more notes on Human Rights, Click Here.

For law notes, Click Here.


[1] Prof.N.V. Paranjape, Criminology and Penology, Central Law Publications, Allahabad, 12th Edition, 2006, p.218.

[2] Attar Chand, Politics of Human Rights and Civil Liberties – A Global Survey , UDH Publishers, Delhi 1985,p. 45.

[3] T.V. Vatheeswaran v. State of Tamil Nadu, AIR 1983 SC 361.

[4] M.B. Mahaworkar, Prison Management, Problems and solutions, Kalpaz Publications, Delhi. 2006, p.43

[5] Narayankar B.D, The New Indian Express, 2nd April 2001, p.9

[6] M.H. Hoksot v. State of Maharashtra, 1978 3 SCC 544.

[7] A.R. Antulay v. R.S. Nayak, AIR 1988 SC 1531.

[8] Raghubir Singh vs. the State of Bihar , 1986 SCR (3) 802.

[9] Charles Sobaraj v. Supdt CentralJail Tihar , AIR 1978 SC 1514.

Author Details: Anisha Bhandari (Institute of Law, Nirma University)

The views of the author are personal only. (if any)


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