Overcrowded and Under-Resourced: A Look at India’s Prison System in Need of Reform


This article delves into the evolution of the Indian prison system, highlighting it’s colonial roots and it’s gradual shift towards rehabilitation. While despite aiming for reform, the current prison system has been grappled with issues like overcrowding, lengthy pre-trial detentions, and inadequate resources. The Model Prison Manual, while a step towards improvement, has not been fully implemented by the authorities, the lack of legal aid for underprivileged detainees further also undermines the system’s effectiveness.



Before the 18th Century, Punishment only took place in a public forum, i.e., public execution, or mutilation, etc. It was mainly directed at the prisoner’s body, in order to strike fear into the minds of the public, who might have even the slightest of ideas to commit a felony. It was more of a theatrical expression, to show who or what was in the position of power, and the result of anyone who chose to disturb it. It would be fair to say that after the 18th Century, the reforms in the prison system and the course or form of punishment that were brought in, were not as expressive and harsh as it previously was. Mind you, that did not mean people were not executed or harsh sentences weren’t carried out, it just meant that there was now a more efficient system in place, one that not only gave power to the government in place, but also to the citizens, and gave them certain rights. The concept of Punishment has existed for a long time, it is just as Aristotle says, “Man is a Social Animal”. Man craves to be part of a society or group, and does not or cannot survive independently. In this sense, the worst thing that can happen to a man is to deprive him of the particular group or society that he wants to be a part of, and what the current prison system does is exactly that, take him out the society that is performing well and good, and put him in the one he deserves, the one which consists of the exiles, delinquents and criminals. The ones who choose to break the rules, making the outer society a harsher environment for the ones who follow the rules, and abide by the law. The Prison System worldwide tries to discipline these rule-breakers, in order to change society for the better, it’s aim is not only to deprive the man of his freedom, but also to reform him.



The present Indian Prison System is one that has been formed from the British idea of dolling out punishments. The idea that supports the current system is that, it is not enough to have just strict or maybe even the best set of rules to reduce criminal behaviour, but it also necessary to have an even stricter set of punishments for the criminals, in order to dishearten them and reduce the attractiveness of the criminal life. The current framework for jail management and administration in India is the Prisons Act, 1894. There haven’t been many significant changes made to this Act. Even after this, though, the process of reviewing India’s jail issues persisted.

‘Reformation and rehabilitation’ of offenders were identified as the prison administrator’s goals for the first time in the history of prisons in the Indian Jail Committee 1919–20 report. Following independence, a number of commissions and committees created by the federal and state governments placed a strong emphasis on humanizing the circumstances within jails. It has long been acknowledged that the laws pertaining to prisons need to be thoroughly revised and unified. The Government of India Act 1935 further lowered the likelihood of a national prison policy being implemented systematically by shifting the matter of jails from the center list to the jurisdiction of provincial governments. As a result, state governments have their own set of regulations for maintaining and managing prisons on a daily basis, as well as for prescribing treatments. In 1951, the Indian government requested Dr. W.C. Reckless, a United Nations specialist on corrections, to do research on prison administration and make recommendations for policy changes. In his study “Jail Administration in India,” he argued in favor of turning prisons into rehabilitation facilities, and suggested updating out-of-date jail manuals. The All India Jail Manual Committee which was formed in 1957, made the Model Prison Manual (MPM) and presented it to the Government of India in 1960 for implementation, which is now the guiding principle for the present Indian prison system.

Despite the relatively low number of persons in prison as compared to many other countries in the world, there are some very common problems across prisons in India, and the situation is likely to be the same or worse in many developing countries. Overcrowding, prolonged detention of under-trial prisoners, unsatisfactory living conditions, lack of treatment programmes and allegations of indifferent and even inhuman approach of prison staff have repeatedly attracted the attention of the critics over the years. while Legal assistance is provided during trial, it is not, during the detainee’s remand court appearance, and for those in India who are unable to pay for legal representation. Given that the majority of inmates both those in lockup and those in prisons have not had their cases tried, the lack of the nation’s legal representation system for the poor is considerably reduced up until the moment of trial. When most of them require this kind of help, lawyers are not readily available. This hinders the basic right of any accused, who is supposed to have a fair representation, under such harsh laws.



Prisons are one of the oldest societal structure used for confinement of people who go against the norms of the society, in an attempt to reform them. The end objective of a prison is to be sent out in a better condition than they have been when they entered. The phenomenon of prisonization creates the area to confront with one’s self and with a feeling of guilt. In this era, prisons are considered as correction centres with the central theme of reintegration and rehabilitation.

Though various bodies have studied the problems of Indian prisons and laws have been enacted to improve jail conditions, it is undeniable that many issues plague our prisons. In many cases, prisoners emerge from jails as hardened criminals rather than reformed wrongdoers eager to rejoin society. Expert counselling programmes should strengthen the emphasis on the correctional aspect. The mentality of the prison staff must change. Prison administration must be disciplined and attentive to prisoners’ human rights. Prison reform is about more than just the buildings; it is about what happens inside them that needs to change. Aside from improving prisoner amenities, the focus must be on their human rights.

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Article written by – Gnaneswarran Beemarao

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