An overview of Prison reforms in India

The prisons in India have existed since the time India was ruled by the rulers. These prisons or dungeons were made in such dark places of the fort that the prisoners couldn’t even see the daylight. They were chained and never had any rights.

This prison system changed gradually with time and with the change in the valuation of the rights of all human beings, including prisoners.

What is a Prison?

Prisonisation symbolises a system of punishment and also a sort of institutional placement of under trials and suspects during the period of trial. Since a society without crime and criminals cannot exist, the institution of prison is indispensable in any country.

The isolated lives of the criminals and the incapacity of the inmates to commit any crime fulfil the preventive purpose of detention. It not only helps to control crime in society but also helps the inmate rehabilitate and repent for their deeds.

The inmates cannot be given the same punishments. As for different offences, different punishments are provided; giving the same punishment would not meet the ends of justice. The introduction of modern ‘classification methods’ in prisons is essentially directed to meet this end.

Prisons in British India

The colonial rule in India marked the beginning of penal reforms. As before, the penal laws varied from king to king and region to region. But, now a uniform penal law was to be introduced by the British. A Prison Enquiry Committee was appointed by the then Government of India in 1836, which recommended the abolition of prisoners working on roads.

An Inspector- General of Prisons was appointed for the first time in 1855 to keep discipline among the prison authorities. This curbed the abuse of power by the jailors and petty officials.

The Prison Act, 1894, was enacted to bring about uniformity in the working of prisons in India. The major change was the abolition of a barbaric punishment called whipping. And even the condition of women was taken into consideration. But the prison policy remained deterrent in nature.

Later, from 1907 onwards, many efforts were made in regard to juvenile and young offenders, political prisoners, summary trials, etc. Many committees, like the Indian Jail Reform Committee, the Pakwasa Committee, etc., were formed to recommend the altercations that could be made in the Indian prison system.

Indian Prisons after Independence

India after independence was governed by the India Prison Act, 1894. The prisons were included in the Seventh Schedule along ‘police and law and order’ in the State List.

In 1951, the Government of India invited an expert from the United Nations, Dr. W.C. Reckless, to give recommendations on jail reforms. Thereafter, in 1957, a committee was appointed to prepare an All India Jail Manual on the suggestions of Dr. Walter Reckless.

As suggested by the Pakwasa Committee, a modern jail was established in Lucknow in 1949. An All India Jail Reforms Committee was appointed in 1980 with Justice A.N. Mulla as its Chairman. The committee suggested setting up a National Prison Commission to bring about modernisation in prisons.

Prison Reforms

The condition of prisons has undoubtedly changed with the gradual modernisation of prisons. But still, there is a lot that needs to be done in order to reform the prisons for a much more humane treatment of the offenders.

In Mohammad Giassudin v. State of Andhra Pradesh, 1977, it was held that the prisoners should be treated as patients and the prisons as hospitals. The prisons should be correctional houses, not cruel iron arching the soul.

In R.D. Upadhyaya v. State of Andhra Pradesh and others, 2006, the Supreme Court expressed its concern for the children living in jail with their prisoner mothers. It further gave a detailed guideline in regard to adequate food, shelter, medical care, clothing, education, and recreational facilities for such children. It further said that a child born to a prisoner mother in prison should not be given jail as the place of birth.

Furthermore, after the age of 6 years, the child should not be kept with his mother in jail. Separate women’s jails have been instituted following the directives of the Apex Court. As well, there are separate jails for juveniles too. There are various rehabilitation centres, protection homes, etc., so that a child in conflict with the law is protected from the evils of society.

In Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, 1978, it was held that the prisoners should be scientifically classified based on the nature of the crime committed, age, sex, character, and propensities of the offender, including his educational level and likely response to prison treatment.

The inmates are provided with basic education, especially in the juvenile prisons. There are vocational trainings as well, which are provided to the inmates. They are even paid for the work they do.

The inmates whose behaviour is considered good and who are supposed to have been rehabilitated into a person fit for the society have their punishment reduced on the basis of their good behaviour and are released on Republic Day or Independence Day.


There have been many major reforms in the prison system of India. But the existing Prison Act, 1894 is more than a century old and needs to be revised. The prison system is effective only if society understands that it needs to accept the released convicts as normal human beings. The convicts should be given a second chance to live a normal life rather than being treated as untouchables.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What is the nature of punishment in India?

Ans. The punishments in India are more likely to be reformative in nature.

Q2. Which Act governs the prisons in India?

Ans. The Act that governs the prison system in India is “the Prisons Act, 1894.”

Updated on: 10-May-2023


Kickstart Your Career

Get certified by completing the course

Get Started