Rights of prisoners: Development in India

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A prisoner is a person who faces deprivation of liberty against his/her will. It can be by detainment, servitude, or by coercive restriction. Prisoners are equipped with rights to some degree as a person when they are in prison, and these fundamental rights cannot be taken away from them. The essential rights join the benefit to sustenance and water, the choice to have a lawyer to defend himself, protection from torment, violence, and racial discrimination.

Evolution of prisoners and their rights

During the 1800s, most prisoners were sent to prisons as opposed to getting capital punishment for the offense they had committed. After the late 1800s, there was a “hand-off” strategy that was adopted and it fundamentally affected the courts throughout the twentieth century. The Prisoner Rights Movement that started during the 1960s made critical progress towards the advancement of prisoner rights, altering how they would be dealt with and how they would come to act when in prison. The cases that developed during this time added to the current treatment, connection, and subculture that the prisoners presently experience.

In Pervear v. Massachusetts 1866, a case was brought to the Supreme Court concerning prisoner rights. A Massachusetts agent did not have a permit to sell alcohol and was condemned to an enormous fine and three months of hard work. He brought the case to the Supreme Court, saying that the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment was not complied with, because the sentence didn’t coordinate the crime. The Court decided that the Constitution only applied to government cases, accordingly deciding that a prisoner had no constitutional rights, not even Eighth Amendment rights. This was the first case that expressed there would be a “hands-off” strategy and that states could run prisons how they wanted, without government obstruction. In 1941, the “hand-off” arrangement started to change because of the instance in Ex parte Hull. It was argued that there was violation of prisoners’ writ of habeas corpus, and the Supreme Court decided that prisoners have the right to apply for writs and that nobody was permitted to meddle with that right.

Cooper v. Pate 1964, and various cases that were brought since 1941, prompted prisoners’ better access to courts. The case that at last finished the “hands-off” arrangement was Holt v. Sarver(1970), which brought to light the deplorable condition of prisons, and the decision on this case prompted the Prisoners’ Rights Movement.

During the Prisoners’ Rights Era, prisoner rights changed significantly. The cases and Amendments made during this time not just influenced cases and rules that had recently existed, yet also prompted the formation of new laws to guarantee the rights of prisoners. Because of these decisions and choices, prisoners were influenced fundamentally. The way that they cooperated inside the court framework changed, as did how their way of communication with one another.

Development in India

The judicial system in India plays an integral role because it sets the laws which are to be followed by the respective citizens. It is the constitutional duty of a judiciary in any nation to protect the citizens’ human rights. They are additionally obligated to make the rules and regulations of prisons for the criminals that are housed there. However, that does not mean that the Constitution can deny the prisoners of their most basic rights. The Supreme Court of India refers to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and developed human rights law for providing protection and rights to maintain a prisoner’s human dignity. If an individual or an authority chooses to violate these rights, they violate the provisions stated in Article 14 of the Constitution, which protects the right to equality as well as equal protection of the law.

  1. Right to Legal Aid

Though the Right to Legal Aid is not something explicitly given by the Constitution, the legal executives often display kindness towards detainees who cannot afford it or simply connect with the legal counsellor voluntarily. Free Legal Aid is included by the 42nd Amendment Act, 1976, as one of the directive principles of state policy under Article 39A. Although it is the most significant and direct Article of the Constitution, which discusses Free Legal aid, this Article is not exactly enforceable by courts. Still, these guidelines are central to administering appropriate legislation. Article 37 of the Constitution directs the state to apply these standards.

In contrast, Article 38 prescribes advancing government assistance of individuals by ensuring and securing a social order wherein equity, social, monetary, and political, will illuminate all the establishments and national legislation. The parliament passed the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 under which legitimate Aid is provided for, while different state governments have set up lawful advisory boards and plans for Free Legal Aid and unforeseen issues to give effect to the Constitutional command of Article 39-A. Under the Indian Human Rights law, legal Aid is of great importance, and it is not only accessible in criminal cases but is additionally offered in standard, income, and regulatory matters.

As exemplified in the case of Madhav Hayawadan Rao Hosket vs. the State of Maharashtra, a three adjudicators seat (V.R.Krishna Iyer, D.A.Desai and O.Chinnappa Reddy, JJ) of the Supreme Court perusing Articles 21 and 39-A, alongside Article 142 and area 304 of Cr.PC together pronounced that the Government was under obligation to offer legitimate types of assistance to the charged people.

  • Rights against inhuman treatment of prisoners

Human Rights are an integral part of human dignity. The Supreme Court of India, in different cases, has aptly noted the gratuitous brutality of prisoners and has enacted appropriate jails and police experts to defend privileges for detainees. The Supreme Court embedded the right against torment into Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution. Herein, it is stated that “the treatment of a human being which offends human dignity, imposes avoidable torture and reduces the man to the level of a beast would certainly be arbitrary and can be questioned under Article 14”.

In Raghubir Singh vs. the State of Bihar, the Supreme Court communicated its anguish over police torment by ordering lifelong incarceration to a cop who was liable for the demise of a suspect while in a police lock-up.

The ruling of the Supreme Court on account of the D.K. Basu case is vital. While managing the case, the Court focused on the issue of custodial torment and gave various heads to mitigate such insidious behaviour, for better assurance and advancement of Human Rights. In this case, the Supreme Court characterized torment and provided its suggestions.

  • Rights against solitary confinement and bar fetters

The courts have solidified their perspective to be against solitary confinement and held that the inconvenience of solitary confinement is an exceptionally corrupting and dehumanizing impact on prisoners. However, the courts placed an exception for unusual situations where the convict was a direct threat to others; he/she should then be isolated from the remaining prisoners. The Supreme Court reflected upon the legitimacy of such confinement in the Sunil Batra case. The Supreme Court has also firmly objected against applying bar shackles to the prisoners. The Court saw that always keeping a prisoner in shackles day and night diminished the detainee from individual to a creature, and such treatment was so inhuman and abnormal that the utilization of bar chains was against the soul of the Constitution of India.

  • Right to speedy trial

The speedy trial of offenses is one of the essential targets of the criminal equity conveyance framework. When the Court takes the comprehension of the allegation, then the prosecution must be directed speedily to rebuff the one who is liable and to exonerate the guiltless.

The right to a speedy trial is provided under section 309 of Cr.PC. If the arrangements of Cr.PC were followed in their letter and soul, at that point, there would be no doubt of any complaint. However, these laws are not appropriately executed. It is essential that the Constitutional assurance of speedy trial exuding from Article 21 ought to be adequately reflected in the arrangements of the code.

For this reason, in A.R.Antulay vs. R.S.Nayak, the Supreme Court set suggestions that will be implemented in ensuring the Human Rights of detainees. The Supreme Court then concluded that the privilege to speedy trial spilling out of Article 21 of the Constitution applies to charges at any stage such as examination, request, trial, bid, modification, and retrial.

  • Narco Analysis/Brain Mapping/Polygraph

In the case of Selvi Vs. State of Karnataka (2010), the Supreme Court has deemed methods such as narco-analysis, polygraph tests, and brain mapping as unconstitutional, thereby violating human rights. This is questionable, as it will be used as a hindrance to examination. Many affirmed lawbreakers may walk away from conviction by taking advantage of this position. Be that as it may, the zenith court states that an individual may be subject to such tests as long as he/she consents to them. While the results of these tests will still not be accepted as proof in the Court, it can be utilized for the encouragement of examination. With the headway in innovation combined with nervous system science, Narcoanalysis, Polygraph test, and Brain mapping proved to be useful devices of examination organizations around the world for extracting truth from the accused. Be that as it may, voices on the opposition were raised by numerous human rights associations as well as individuals exposed to such tests. They were marked as a detriment to the accused person’s psyche, thereby interfering with the right to protection of a person. The Supreme Court acknowledged that the tests oppose Article 20 (3), which mentions that an individual cannot be compelled to provide proof against himselves.

Major statutes and landmark judgements

The Constitution of India

The Constitution of India does not explicitly provide any provisions identified with the prisoners’ rights, however on account of T.V. Vatheeswaran v. Territory of Tamil Nadu, it was held that the Articles 14 or the equality before and equal protection of law, Article 19 which contains the 6 freedoms and Article 21, guaranteeing the right to life and its many facets are accessible to the detainees just as they would be to free men.

The Prisoner’s Act, 1894

The Prisons Act, 1894, is the first legislation regarding prison regulation in India. This Act primarily focuses on the reformation of prisoner environments in conjunction with the rights of prisoners. The following Sections of the Prisons Act, 1894 are related to the transformation of prisoner conditions:-

  1. Accommodation and sanitary conditions for prisoners,
  2. Provision for the shelter and safe custody of the excess number of prisoners who cannot be safely kept in any prison,
  3. Provisions relating to the examination of prisoners by qualified Medical Officer,
  4. Provisions relating to separation of prisoners, containing female and male prisoners, civil and criminal prisoners and convicted and under-trial prisoners,
  5. Provisions relating to the treatment of under-trials, civilian prisoners, parole, and temporary release of prisoners.

In the year of 2016, the parliament had passed the Prisons (Amendment) Bill, 2016, to amend the Prisons Act, 1894, to provide protection and welfare of the prisoners.

In the case of Hussainara Khatoon v/s Home Secretary, Bihar, it was said that if free legal services are not provided, the trail itself may be vitiated as contravening Article 21.

Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in the case of State of M.P v/s Shyamsundar Trivedi held that convicts are not, by mere reason of the conviction, denied fundamental rights which they would otherwise possess.


It may very well be said that the prisoners are qualified for all their essential rights while they are behind bars. The Indian Constitution doesn’t explicitly accommodate the prisoners’ privileges, however Articles 14, 19 and 21 certainly ensured the prisoners’ privileges and the arrangements of the Prisons Act, 1894 contains the arrangements for the government assistance and insurance of detainees. The Court has decided that it can intercede with prison organizations when established rights or statutory remedies are violated to the injury of the prisoner.

The Supreme Court by and large held that prisoner is an individual, a characteristic individual and furthermore a legitimate individual. Being a prisoner doesn’t invalidate you from being individual. Conviction for a wrongdoing doesn’t diminish the individual into a non-individual, whose rights are dependent upon the impulse of the prison organization and in this manner, it acts as a burden on jail authorities and others, in the absence of procedural safeguards.

Author: Aishwarya Moitra from School of Law, Sharda University, Knowledge Park III, Greater Noida.

Editor: Ismat Hena from Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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