Prisoner’s Rights in India

Anusha Banerjee[1] & Samarth Dwivedi[2]


In the present cultivated society, there exists a system of law, human rights are requisite as a result of the reason for human life and it becomes fundamental to ensure for every citizen a reasonably dignified living. Regardless of whether the individual is confined or detained due to his wrong, his rights cannot be denuded. In the name of examining offenses, extracting a confession and rebuffing people by the law, torture is imposed on the accused, complainants or informants amounting to unkind, ruthless, barbaric and humiliating action, derogatory to the individual dignity of a person. However, the penal reforms in India amid the past few decades have achieved an astounding change in the outlook of individuals towards the wrongdoers. The old perception of crime, criminal and convicts have fundamentally changed. The prominence has now moved from deterrence to reformative of the criminal. A prison today fills three purposes which may be depicted as custody, care and correctional. Though the last of these which concerns the use of detention as a form of lawful penalty, a person being a detainee, cannot be seized of his rights by the authority as he has principal rights ensured by the Art.21 of the Constitution and secured by the Supreme Court and High Courts under Art.32 and Art.226 of the Constitution. In this background, the rights of the prisoners picked up significance and have become the focal point of this paper.


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. 

However, 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. But the Indian socio-legal system is based on non-violence, mutual respect and human dignity of the individual. A prisoner is also a human being and hence is entitled to some basic rights to live a modest and reasonably decent life.  In the case of The State of A.P. v. Challa Ramkrishna Reddy,[3]  it was held that a prisoner is entitled to all his fundamental rights unless his liberty has been constitutionally curtailed. The Supreme Court has emphasized that a prisoner, whether a convict, under-trial or detenu, does not cease to be a human being and, while lodged in jail, he enjoys all his fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India including the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution. Even a person is convicted and deprived of his liberty in accordance with the procedure established by law; a prisoner still retains the residue of constitutional rights.[4]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 organizations 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.

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

Objective of the Paper

Non – violence and human dignity have always been the major pillar of the Indian social-legal system, therefore, keeping the same in contrast, the main objective of the paper is to define that the very existence of a human being doesn’t cease to exist even after he has been convicted of committing a crime, thus, depriving an individual of his fundamental rights and treating him as an animal is inhumane and a slur to the Indian Constitution whose main emphasis is on Equality, and Human Dignity. In this research paper we are trying to analyze the state of prisoners in India, the rights they get under article 21 of the Indian Constitution through various judicial judgments that have been conceded and held as binding throughout the territory of the India. Though various scholars have penned down their opinion and the current scenario regarding the subject matter, this paper aims at collectively binding all those views briefly into one space, analyzing the same with a new set of mind and thus, formulating fresh source of information to increase the knowledge and wisdom of the readers of this paper. We also attempt to provide awareness in regard to the fundamental rights which are being taken away from the humans inside a prison. It aims to provide significant data to its readers as well as the executives who look through the day in day out activities of the prisoners and therefore, improve the living stipulation of the people trapped inside the four hard rock cemented walls of a prison.

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Research Methodology

To analyze how the rights of the prisoners are violated leading to failure in the justice system, it is important to find out whether the existing laws are self-contained and all-pervasive to ensure the prisoner’s rights guaranteed to them. Therefore, the selection of doctrinal research method by the researchers is considered to be effective and efficient in this research area dealing with data collected from primary sources like for e.g., Documents, Newspaper Reports, Interviews and Constitutional Provisions dealing with Human Rights.

The present research, in a way, is also analytical. Apart from the primary sources pointed out above, secondary sources, like recognized commentaries written by legal luminaries, Articles from Journals, Articles from Websites on the Internet, Books, etc have also been minutely referred by the researcher.

Research Issues

The present study tries to find out different types of safeguards guaranteed to the prisoners under article 21 and to bring out whether a prisoner is entitled to invoke the same?The analysis done is with regard to the scope and content of each type of prisoner rights as determined by courts along with the gist of origin and development, current scenario and violations of rights of the prisoners, impact and solutions to it.


In the existing scenario of prison, barbaric treatment given to the prisoners isn’t subjectively humane, contrasted with the one given to the caged animals. In the line of the same, the Constitution of India in its preamble distinctly expresses that justice social, economic and political should be given to the people. The detainees likewise can’t be denied of those rights constructed on the way that he is under trial or a prisoner as India is a secular nation. The idea of equity in India had been affected for quite a long time by various age-old religious convictions. For example, under the Hindu Jurisprudence, the organization of criminal justice was executed as per the socio-religious doctrines originating from Vedic disclosures like the Srutis, Smritis, Puranas, Nibandh, and Granthas. The Hindu jurisprudence of criminal justice organization, both in the Vedic and post-Vedic people group and kingdoms gave no careful consideration to the accused on the grounds that the denounced was not perceived as a person who could profess to have any right. Another instance comes from the Muslim concept of the administration of justice, based on the scriptures and principles of the Quran. The Muslim philosophy of the administration of justice looked upon the accused as a sinner; consequently, the sinner had to be subjected to social deprivation (Mehraj-Ud-Din, 1985). Later, the kings imprisoned only the war victims and who committed heinous crimes. The prisoners lose all his rights and live like a slave or bonded labor is accused of a crime.  But a prison is a place where the criminal justice system put its entire hopes and if he correctional mechanism, if fails will make the whole criminal procedure in vain. Therefore, prison jurisprudence since the late ‘60s recognizes that prisoners do not lose all their rights because of imprisonment. Yet, there are instances of loss of rights within custodial institutions which continue to still continue to persist. As rightly said by Martin Luther King Jr.: “A right delayed is a right denied” the practice of torture to the prisoners has become predominant in India since time immemorial. Being uncontested and at liberty, it has become ‘regular’ and ‘justifiable’ practice all over India. Justice V.R Krishna Iyer in the case of M.P. v. Shyamsundar Trivedi,[5]rightfully stated that “Convicts are not by mere reason of the conviction denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise possess.” But however alarming conditions of the prison and breach of the basic human rights such as custodial deaths, physical violence/persecute, custodial rape, poor quality of food, lack of water supply, forced labour and other problems observed by the apex court have led to judicial activism, violation of prisoner’s rights and has repeatedly attracted the attention of critics over the years. Taking a reference of the case of Rama Murthy v The State of Karnataka,[6] where the Honorable supreme court has summed up 9 major problems that the prisoners and prisons are afflicted to be as follows:

  1. 80% of prisoners are undertrials.
  2. Delay in the trial.
  3. Even though bail is granted, prisoners are not released.
  4. Lack or insufficient provision of medical aid to prisoners.
  5. The callous and insensitive attitude of jail authorities.
  6. Punishment carried out by jail authorities not coherent with the punishment given by the court.
  7. Harsh mental and physical torture.
  8. Lack of proper legal aid.
  9. Corruption and other malpractices.
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Unfortunately, little has changed. There have been no worthwhile reforms affecting the basic issues of relevance to prison administration in India. The fundamental rights guaranteed to the people of the nation are not absolute in nature and restrictions have been imposed in various forms on their enjoyment. A person when kept in a prison, his status as that of a free Indian citizen changes and along with it changes the very nature of the rights that have been guaranteed to him by the Indian Constitution.  The most important of these rights is the right guaranteed under article 21 which is read as,

“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.”

Therefore, any violation of this right attracts the provisions of Article 14 of the Constitution which enshrines the right to equality and equal protection of the law. Article 21 is the most vastly interpreted article of the Indian constitution; the Supreme Court of India has espoused explanation of Article 21 and expanded the denotation of ‘life’ given by Field J. in the case of Kharak Singh v. The State of UP[7] that, “Life means more than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits mutilation of the body by the amputation of an arm or leg, or the putting out of an eye or the destruction, of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the other world.” A person does not become inhuman, even though he has committed serious crimes, his constitutional rights do not evaporate like water in the heat of a dessert. For a country as populated and vast as India, it is a regrettable connotation that the rights of the prisoners are yet to be codified, though; the judiciary has not forgotten the existence of inmates and has recognized that the prisoners do have a long list of rights and prison authorities have to follow them in the absence of legislation. As far as the prisoners’ rights are concerned, article 21 of the Indian constitution has been a major center of litigation since it embodies the principle of personal liberty which has been widely interpreted by Supreme Court of India. Personal Liberty of a convicted person is fundamental and can be taken away only in accordance to the procedure established by the law and deprivation of the same must be instituted on the most serious consideration pertinent to the wellbeing of the society. Keeping in view the same, the court held that appellants are entitled to be released on bail, subject to certain safeguards. Crimes have always been a reality and wrongdoer have been kept confined inside the four walls since a long time but it was not before the Maneka Gandhi case[8]that court recognized the need to protect inmates from the violence and arbitrary nature of the prison authorities who have been originally treating prisoners as an animal and thus, injecting hatred and heartless pain in them. Fairness and Reasonableness is the most important aspect interpreted by the court with regard to article 21, and after this judgment, it has been established that every person inside a prison is entitled to their fundamental rights with some legal restrictions. Some of these rights as interpreted by the court are:

Right to Legal Aid

To bring out the best of the judicial system of the country, it is fair to say that every individual whether prisoner or non- prisoner must be entitled to legal services even if he doesn’t have resources to benefit himself with the services of a lawyer. As held in the case of  Sukdas v. The State Of Arunachal Pradesh [9] where it is state’s duty to provide every prisoner with free legal assistance; the legal representative assigned should be given all files, facts and paperwork related to his case and should be allowed with sufficient time to prepare for the prisoner’s case. In the case of Hussainara Khatoon v The State of Bihar,[10] it was held that free legal services to the prisoners is an indispensable ingredient of reasonableness, just and fair procedure and is recognized as an implicit right guaranteed under article 21 of the Indian constitution.

Right To Speedy Trial

People rotting inside prison, sometimes, even for offenses they didn’t commit due to long and overdue process of trials had been a major setback in attaining justice for the prisoners, as it is very well acknowledged ‘justice delayed is justice denied’, and is implicit in the readings and interpretation of article 21 as no trial is fair, just and reasonable if not completed within a fair duration of time and a relief is provided within an immediate course of time. The Supreme Court observed that, though it is not an enumerated right, it still can be claimed by the prisoners[11]as detaining a person for a period of time even during the process of trial results in a violation of his right to life and personal liberty which are guaranteed under the Indian constitution. The process of bail in India is very harsh to poor as most of them do not have resources to pay the required amount, thus, the need of speedy trial is as necessary as a fair, just and reasonable process of judicial system implicitly guaranteed under article 21. Also, in a case of Sher Singh v The State of Punjab,[12] the court held that unjustifiable delay in execution of death violates article 21.

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Right to Medical Care

A country with a population of well over 1 billion people, health care for everyone is an important aspect of livelihood. Many healthcare policies have been kept in place to ensure the containment of any disease which is pertaining or may pertain in the society, yet many times the prisoners are forgotten and are not conferred with their right to medical treatment. Though, before serving their sentence, they are tested for medical disease, but there have not been any reports on the national level for the same. The prisoners are convicted felon but that doesn’t eradicate the very fact that they are still in touch with the authorities that go in and out of the prison regularly, thus, it becomes all the more essential to ensure health care to these prisoners as well. The Supreme Court in the case of Parmanand Katara v. Union of India[13] observed that “It is the duty of the state to preserve a life whether the life in question is that of an ordinary human being or that of a convicted felon or an inmate.” Therefore, regular checkups for the inmates has become a very critical requirement as the environment of a prison is often that of a violent space, where a prisoner of better connection or stronger physical capability may prey upon the weaker and thus, contracting disease in such an environment is highly likely and treatment for the same should be a right of the prisoner as it is observed by supreme court and is implicitly interpreted under article 21 of the Indian constitution. 


Article 21 embodies a person to exercise his rights guaranteed under the constitution of India which is a broader concept than any fundamental right given to the citizen of India as well as aliens. It has been vastly interpreted throughout the judiciary of India and rest of the democratic nations. Article 21 separates a prisoner from a status equivalent to that of an animal as it guarantees a life with dignity even if the man in question has been a party to a severe crime. The ambition of the constitution makers was to always promote human dignity and equality amongst the citizen of the nation and so has been critically realized and implicated through various judgments put forward by the judiciary of India. The impacts of these judgments have helped in a better life style and treatment of the inmates, but there is still a long way to go as the implication of these rights by the prison authorities need to be improved and the inmates are yet to be acknowledged with their rights as human. To conclude the study, we hope that through this paper, the prisoners as well as the authorities responsible for the stimulation of life at a prison acquire more knowledge about the same, and realize the inmates to be human beings as well.

[1] BA.LLB 2nd year, Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.

[2] BBA.LLB 2nd year, Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.

[3] State of A.P. v. Challa Ramkrishna Reddy AIR 2000 SC 2083.

[4] M.P. Jain, Indian Constitutional Law 1295 (5th ed. 2003).

[5] M.P. v. Shyamsundar Trivedi (1994) 4 SCC 395.

[6] Rama Murthy v. The State Of Karnataka (1997) 2 SCC 642.

[7] Kharak Singh v. The State of UP AIR 1963 SC 1295.

[8] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 597.

[9] Sukdas v. The State Of Arunachal Pradesh 1986 SC 991.

[10] Hussainara Khatoon v. The State of Bihar AIR 1979 SC 1369.

[11] Parmanand Katara v. Union of India, AIR 1979 SC 1369.

[12] Sher Singh v. The State of Punjab AIR 1983 SC 465.

[13] Supra note 11 at 7.

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