Every Convict May Not Be Vijay Mallya, But Every Prisoner is Human

Why are we as a society, so bloodthirsty – desiring that those we deem as ‘bad people’, meet a cruel fate?

3 min read
Every Convict May Not Be Vijay Mallya, But Every Prisoner is Human

Vijay Mallya may have been in the news for all the wrong reasons, but he sure has (inadvertently) done one good deed – bringing the issue of prison reforms back into the limelight.

Are prisoners persons? Yes, of course. To answer in the negative is to convict the nation and the Constitution of dehumanisation and to repudiate the world legal order,answered the Supreme Court of India in 1980. Since then, it is quite alarming to observe, that despite making much progress as a society, we have continued to ignore the issue of prison reforms.


Problems Plaguing India’s Prisons

Prisons are a state subject in India, which means that their administration and control fall under the respective state governments, who are at liberty to make rules and regulations. Over the course of several years, numerous Prison Model Manuals, committees and guidelines have been formed, but structural changes in prisons largely remain insignificant in political discourse.

  1. The Supreme Court took cognisance of the disturbing picture of prisons in 2016 after examining the conditions of the then 1382 prisons of India. The Court, in Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons issued guidelines on certain issues plaguing the Indian correctional systems dealing with:
  2. overcrowding
  3. unnatural deaths of prisoners
  4. gross inadequacy of staff
  5. available staff being untrained

As per the data on Prison Statistics of 2015, 67.2 percent of prisoners in India are still at the undertrial stage. The presumption of innocence is a well-accepted norm and a deep-rooted principle in the Indian criminal system. However, due to the exceedingly long investigation process and prolonged court orders, innocent individuals end up languishing in jail. This has an unfavourable domino effect on the condition of prisons including staffing, facilities and management, resulting in an adverse impact on the mental and physical state of prisoners.

No Point in Being a ‘Welfare State’ Without Prison Reforms

To rectify the issue of undertrials, the Criminal Procedure Code through Section 436A provides that undertrials who have served half the maximum sentence of the offence committed, are eligible to be released on personal bond, with or without surety. However, with little or no implementation and supervision, the situation has deteriorated to an extent that the Supreme Court has acknowledged (as recently as 2018) that overcrowding in jails is well above 100 percent, and in some cases, even exceeds 150 percent.

To put forward the argument of “why should prisoners receive basic facilities when the general public is not well off themselves?” or “prisoners don’t deserve resources because they are hardened criminals” paints a dismal view of India’s progression towards being a welfare state. After all, the state has a duty towards the preservation of life of its citizens, whether behind bars or not, under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

The demographic trend of prisoners narrates another distressing story. At least 65.9 percent of the total convicts hail from the weaker sections of society.

Further, the majority of inmates are illiterate or have only studied up to Class 10. This phenomenon arises either because the Indian judicial system is inherently biased, in recognising that disadvantaged sections are pushed into petty crimes, or due to the lack of adequate legal representation and financial resources. Ultimately, this outcome is unacceptable under the directive principle Article 39A, albeit a non-binding one, which provides for the state to strive for equal opportunity and free legal aid for all.


Crime and Punishment

The link between the purpose of prison, and theories of punishment, is again a great cause of confusion. On numerous occasions, courts have come forward to declare that the Indian criminal system is based on a reformatory and rehabilitative approach. However, the ground situation emphasises the opposite: a strong inclination towards retribution and deterrence. This is because we as a society want these criminals to be ‘punished’ and to feel ‘pain’ in the conventional sense. The social theory behind ‘eye for an eye’ is further strengthened by the legislative approach in introducing the death penalty and harsher punishments for certain offences.

Certain rebalancing and changes in the prison structure are desperately needed; both literally and figuratively. The voice of 4,19,623 inmates cannot be stifled due to the sole reason that they are the ‘bad people’ (which in the majority of cases is yet to even be proved). Thus, challenging the status quo becomes real, desperate and ever so required.

(Madhav Nakra is a second year undergraduate student at the National Law University, Delhi. He has a keen interest in human rights and international law. He is currently interning at Project 39A, NLU Delhi and has previously worked with several civil society organisations on projects in the field of human rights. You may reach him at This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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