Law · Society

Prisoners’ Rights- An Indian perspective

This article on the rights of prisoners in India is written by Samhitha Reddy.

Human Rights are the inalienable rights to which every human being is entitled to as a part of the human society. It enables human beings to live a dignified and respectful life and provides equal rights, freedoms and justice to all.

A prisoner is a person who is serving time in prison for the crimes he or she has committed. His rights are curtailed as a punishment for breaking the law. A prisoner is also a human being and hence is entitled to some basic rights to live a modest and reasonably decent life.

Although going to prison involves restriction of ones rights, a prisoner, irrespective of the crime he or she has committed, deserves certain basic rights as a part of the human fraternity. Over the years, ‘rights of prisoners’ have developed considerably and are now being taken more seriously. From being treated in a barbaric manner with minimum to no rights, today, there are organisations working tirelessly for the recognition of rights of prisoners and even the governments of different countries have come up with laws to protect these rights. Prisoners must be allowed to live with dignity and must be granted certain basic rights such as protection from cruel and harsh punishments, torture, sexual harassment and mental and medical health care.

Rights of Prisoners, in India has gained importance in the last few decades as the plight of the prisoners in jail has come to light and the deplorable conditions that the prisoners live in, in the prisons has come to the notice of the Government, the Judiciary and the people. The Supreme Court of India and the State High Courts have also commented on the pitiable state of prisoners in their judgments.

“In a number of judgments on various aspects of prison administration, the Supreme Court of India has laid down three broad principles:

(i) A person in prison does not become a non-person.

(ii) A person in prison is entitled to all human rights within the limitations of imprisonment.

(iii) There is no justification in aggravating the suffering already inherent in the process of incarceration.”[1]

The Supreme Court of India has ruled that the compulsion to live in a prison entails by its own force the deprivation of certain rights, like the right to move freely or to practice a profession of one’s choice, a prisoner is otherwise entitled to the basic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.[2]

It is also essential for one to understand that a convicted person goes to prison as punishment and not for punishment.[3] Hence, the person cannot be inflicted with more punishment and the orders of the court have to be followed.

But this is not usually the case. Rights of prisoners are sometimes overlooked or not bestowed. This is due to the deep rooted belief among people that the prisoners do not deserve any rights as they have committed crimes and wronged the society. What these people do not realize is that not only is this morally wrong as prisoners are also human beings, it is also legally incorrect to ignore or omit their rights.

There are national and international laws governing and ensuring rights of prisoners:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, states that: : “No one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment”[4]. Also, the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states: “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”[5]  These internationally accepted tenets also apply to the prisoners of India as India is a part of the United Nations.

There are numerous rights to which the prisoners are entitled to residing in prisons. These rights are mentioned in various international statutes like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Acts such as the Prison Act, 1894 and Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, reports of various committees like the All India Committee on Jail Reforms, 1980-83 and judgements of the Supreme Court of India and State High Courts which are used as precedents in case any issues regarding the interpretation of laws and violation of rights occurs.

Right to Basic and Minimum Needs

Right to Basic and Minimum Needs connotes “Right to fulfillment of basic minimum needs such as adequate diet, adequate potable water for drinking, bathing and cleaning purposes; recreation facilities; health and medical care and treatment, access to clean and hygienic conditions of living accommodation, sanitation and personal hygiene, adequate clothing, bedding and other equipment; and recreation.”[6]

Many sub-rights fall under the ambit of this right.

Right to adequate diet and potable drinking water is a very vital part of this right. It is highly necessary for the prisoners to receive the optimum amount of food, calories and nutrients. “An average man requires approximately 2,000 to 2,400 calories a day. A person who does heavy work requires not less than 2,800 calories per day. An average woman having a body weight of 45 kg would require about 2,400 calories, partly because her weight is lesser and partly because she is expected to do less heavy work than a male prisoner doing labour work. Pregnant and nursing women need about 3100 calories every day.”[7] The nutrient necessary and the optimum amounts of each have also been specified.[8]

Nutrient Requirement Sources
1. Protein 1g. per kg. of body


Pulses, rice, wheat, milk, fish

meat, eggs, etc.

2. Fat 50 g. Oils, butter, ghee, milk, eggs,


3. Carbohydrate 300 g. Cereals, sugar, jaggery, milk,

root vegetables such as

potato, etc.

4. Minerals:

a. Calcium

0.65 g. for adult, 1

g. for child

Milk, milk products, eggs,

green, vegetables, unhusked

cereals and whole gram

b. Iron 12.15 mg. Vegetables, fruits, fish and


5. Vitamins :

a. Vitamin A

3,000 to 4,000 I.U. Leafy vegetables, milk, fish,

liver oils, yellow vegetables,

eggs, carrot and yellow sweet


b. Vitamin C 50 mg. Tamarind, amla, guava, all

citrus fruits, eggs, lime,

orange etc., and sprouted

pulses, leafy vegetables

c. Vitamin D 400 I.U. Fish, liver oils, milk
d. Vitamin group

i. Thiamine

1to 2 mg. Under milled cereals and

pulse, parboiled rice, whole


ii. Riboflavin 1.8 to 3.0 mg Leafy vegetables, eggs, fish,

milk and milk products

iii. Nicotinic acid 10 to 15 mg. Under milled cereals, pulses

and parboiled rice

Just like all other human beings, prisoners also not only deserve to have three meals a day and clean, potable drinking water, it is imperative that they do so, to keep fit and healthy. Some prisoners do arduous work in prisons like agriculture and other industrial work with raw material and technical equipment. This requires a lot of energy and therefore the prisoners need to be well-fed.

“Every prisoner shall have three meals a day according to the scales prescribed. These shall be:

(i) A light meal in the morning before the hour of work;

(ii) A midday meal; and

(iii) An evening meal before prisoners are locked up for the night.”[9]

The prisoners must also be provided with apt clothing, footwear and bedding as per the climatic conditions of the surroundings.

It is their right to receive proper accommodation. It is necessary for the prisoners to live in a dignified manner with a reasonable amount of space for each person. But this is not the case in many Indian prisons.

Overcrowding is a very pressing issue in India today. Most prisons in the country are overcrowded. Overcrowding occurs when the occupancy rate[10] is greater than the authorized capacity, that is, number of prisoners present in a particular jail is more than the full strength of prisoners that the said jail is allowed to house. 

 Capacity of Jails, Inmate Population and Occupancy Rate at the end of 2014-

Sl. No. State/UT Available Capacity Inmate Population Occupancy Rate

(In %)

Male Female Total Male Female Total Male Female Total
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11)
1 Andhra Pradesh 7607 798 8405 7601 363 7964 99.9 45.5 94.8
2 Arunachal Pradesh 44 12 56 123 4 127 279.5 33.3 226.8
3 Assam 7606 586 8192 8052 294 8346 105.9 50.2 101.9
4 Bihar 35916 1289 37205 30204 1091 31295 84.1 84.6 84.1
5 Chhattisgarh 5848 534 6382 15726 799 16525 268.9 149.6 258.9
6 Goa 340 25 365 500 27 527 147.1 108 144.4
7 Gujarat 11359 973 12332 11426 522 11948 100.6 53.6 96.9
8 Haryana 15179 1468 16647 17858 784 18642 117.6 53.4 112.0
9 Himachal Pradesh 1594 138 1732 2043 77 2120 128.2 55.8 122.4
10 Jammu & Kashmir 2840 171 3011 2202 82 2284 77.5 48 75.9
11 Jharkhand 13646 717 14363 16823 865 17688 123.3 120.6 123.1
12 Karnataka 12188 1193 13381 13632 589 14221 111.8 49.4 106.3
13 Kerala 5773 417 6190 6907 171 7078 119.6 41 114.3
14 Madhya Pradesh 25597 1650 27247 35283 1150 36433 137.8 69.7 133.7
15 Maharashtra 23562 1619 25181 26438 1430 27868 112.2 88.3 110.7
16 Manipur 1037 110 1147 607 37 644 58.5 33.6 56.1
17 Meghalaya 485 45 530 810 3 813 167 6.7 153.4
18 Mizoram 1102 200 1302 994 60 1054 90.2 30 81.0
19 Nagaland 1290 160 1450 433 10 443 33.6 6.3 30.6
20 Odisha 16371 1641 18012 14302 538 14840 87.4 32.8 82.4
21 Punjab 17091 1588 18679 24703 1304 26007 144.5 82.1 139.2
22 Rajasthan 15982 1209 17191 19665 694 20359 123 57.4 118.4
23 Sikkim 206 47 253 258 6 264 125.2 12.8 104.3
24 Tamil Nadu 19760 2441 22201 15266 608 15874 77.3 24.9 71.5
25 Telangana 6169 679 6848 5559 446 6005 90.1 65.7 87.7
26 Tripura 2051 122 2173 881 28 909 43 23 41.8
27 Uttar Pradesh 49642 3138 52780 84649 3572 88221 170.5 113.8 167.1
28 Uttarakhand 3065 123 3188 3893 162 4055 127 131.7 127.2
29 West Bengal 19393 1523 20916 18752 1317 20069 96.7 86.5 96.0
Total (States) 322743 24616 347359 385590 17033 402623 119.5 69.2 115.9
30 A & N Islands 1209 40 1249 764 5 769 63.2 12.5 61.6
31 Chandigarh 940 60 1000 670 32 702 71.3 53.3 70.2
32 D & N Haveli 50 10 60 198 1 199 396 10 331.7
33 Daman & Diu 120 40 160 78 1 79 65 2.5 49.4
34 Delhi 5850 400 6250 13248 602 13850 226.5 150.5 221.6
35 Lakshadweep 64 0 64 28 0 28 43.8 0 43.8
36 Puducherry 373 46 419 279 7 286 74.8 15.2 68.3
Total (UTs) 8606 596 9202 15265 648 15913 177.4 108.7 172.9
Total (All-India) 331349 25212 356561 400855 17681 418536 121 70.1 117.4

From the above bar graph and table, it can be seen that the number of prisoners in the prisons exceeds the number of prisoners the prisons are actually allowed to hold. This is a clear violation of the rights of prisoners as it is a prisoner’s basic right to have proper accommodation but in most jails, that there are so many prisoners that this right is not realised.

The Prison Statistics India 2014 report brings out that there are 1,84,386 inmates lodged in central prisons of India against the authorized capacity of 1,52,312 inmates, showing an occupancy rate of 121.1%. In all types of jails taken together, there were 4,18,536 inmates of whom 2,82,879 were under-trials, constituting 67.6% of total inmates. Prison reforms, thus, need to be accelerated for creating congenial and reformative environment for the inmates.[12]

Overcrowding leads to poor prison administration as there is a lack of facilities such as clothing, food, health care and poor living conditions due to the lack of space in the prison. This also leads to lack of proper hygiene and sanitation. It is very unhealthy to allow the prisoners to live in such terrible and unacceptable conditions. Such conditions are also the cause for various diseases.

Even during times of outbreaks of epidemics in prisons, the required medical attention cannot be given to each individual prisoner as there are too many prisoners and not enough medical staff and resources to take care of the needs of all the prisoners. The condition of the prisoners’ hence becomes deplorable.

In prison, prisoners are taught various skills such as carpentry, painting, binding, and typing and in certain jails even agriculture so as to help the prisoners obtain a means to earn his daily bread after release. But due to overcrowding and the acute need of space in most prisons in India, the quality of these skills is being compromised. Most jails lack the required funds to maintain so many prisoners.

Health care and mental and medical facilities must be available to all prisoners without any discrimination. It is their right to receive medical attentions and check-ups on a periodic basis. The prisoner has to be fully examined on admission into the jail and has to be periodically examined after. In case of any medical ailment, steps have to be taken to allow the prisoner to live in the premises in a dignified manner.

Due to overcrowding or negligence of the prison staff, the prisoners live in highly unhygienic conditions which lead to them contracting various diseases. With open toilets in certain prisons, prisoners are deprived of their basic right to privacy and dignity as a human being. Other prisons also face water shortage. When ill, prisoners are neglected and due medical examination and care by competent doctors is not provided.

If and when an epidemic breaks out, the ratio of number of doctors to the number of prisoners is highly skewed and many prisoners are neglected due to the shortage of the skilled personnel.

Besides suffering from physical ailments, the prisoner also undergoes considerable stress and trauma during his stay in prison. Imprisonment is often accompanied with depression and a feeling of isolation and neglect.[13]

The medical officers of the prisons must not only oversee the welfare of the prisoners but also the overall hygiene of the prisoners. Inspections must be held periodically in order to monitor the conditions of the prisons and its prisoners.

“The Chief Medical Officer and the prison medical staff must watch over all matters affecting health, such as:

  1. Overcrowding
  2. Unsuitable, worn out or dirty clothing
  3. Neglect of personal cleanliness
  4. Undue exposure to weather
  5. Unpunctuality of meals
  6. Neglect to air-dry or clean clothes and bedding
  7. Unsuitable tasks.”[14]

Aged Prisoners, drug addict and any other prisoner with any kind of disability must all be given special attention as per the requirements.

Special Needs of Aged Prisoners[15]: The Chief Medical Officer shall ensure that the medical needs of aged prisoners in terms of ophthalmological care, dental care, physiotherapy, and clinical testing for diabetics are regularly attended to.

Treatment of Drug Addicts[16]: The Chief Medical Officer shall organize de-addiction programmes for such prisoners who are known to be drug-addicts. He shall also organize training in Transcendental Meditation and Yoga for them.

As a part of the above mentioned right, the prisoners are entitled to live in a clean, hygienic atmosphere with proper sanitation. They must be given prison clothes and slippers along with adequate bedding as per the weather of the surrounding areas so as to stay warm and in good health.


Prisoners are after all but human beings just like everyone else. They deserve certain basic rights to live a decent and dignified life within the limits of the rules and regulations of the prisons.

Conditions of prisoners in many jails in the country are very deplorable. They do not get proper food and water, there is no sanitation and worst of all, they are even tortured and killed in custody. Although awareness is now beginning to spread regarding this sensitive issue, most people are unaware of these heart-wrenching circumstances that the prisoners live in today.

Also, spreading awareness regarding these topics is a must. The prisoners need to be aware of their rights so that they can exercise them. Many prisoners in today’s jails are not aware of most of their rights and hence are suffering, silently. Not only the prisoners, but also their families need to be aware of the laws and the various rights that a prisoner is entitled to. Only then can these rights be exercised by the prisoners and their families. Various awareness programs must be held to help prisoners realise their rights. It is not only the duty of the police and the other prison officials, but also the law that they inform the prisoner of his basic rights.

The frequency of jail inspections must be increased so as to keep a check on the proper maintenance of prisoners in the prisons and all the rules in the Prison Manual must be followed properly.

Human rights are universal in nature and it applies to all human beings and ‘rights of prisoners’, being a part of these human rights, must be taken more seriously and it must be given the same status and level of importance as any other human right. Having a conscience as a result of being human, it is imperative that we understand that we cannot let another fellow human being suffer in such deplorable and disheartening conditions and we must all work together in spreading awareness and uplifting this section of the human society.


[1] Model Prison Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Prisons in India, prepared by the Bureau of Police Research andDevelopment,2003

[2] Charles Sobhraj vs. Superintendent, Tihar Jail, AIR 1978, SC 1514

[3] Jon Vagg. Prison System- A Comparative Study of Accountability in England, France, Germany and the Netherlands, Clarenden Press, Oxford 1994

[4]Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5

[5] United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 10

[6]National Human Rights Commission of India- Living Conditions and Human Rights of Inmates, Volume I, 2013.

[7] Chapter IV, Sections 6.01, 6.02 and 6.03, 2003, Model Prison Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Prisons in India, prepared by the Bureau of Police Research andDevelopment,2003

[8] Chapter IV, Section 6.04, 2003, Model Prison Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Prisons in India, prepared by the Bureau of Police Research andDevelopment,2003

[9] Chapter IV, Section 6.07, 2003, Model Prison Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Prisons in India, prepared by the Bureau of Police Research andDevelopment,2003

[10] Occupancy rate is defined as number of inmates staying in jails against the authorized capacity for 100 inmates. – Prison Statistics India 2014

[11] Prison Statistics of  India 2014, Chapter

[12]Prison Statistics India 2014.

[13] A report based on the proceedings on the workshops organised at Bhopal by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in collaboration with the Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission (MPHRC)- Prisons and Human Rights, 1998.

[14] Chapter VII, Section 7.70, 2003, Model Prison Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Prisons in India, prepared by the Bureau of Police Research andDevelopment,2003

[15] Chapter VII, Section 7.15, 2003, Model Prison Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Prisons in India, prepared by the Bureau of Police Research and Development,2003

[16] Chapter VII, Section 7.16, 2003, Model Prison Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Prisons in India, prepared by the Bureau of Police Research and Development,2003

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