Indian and International Perspective of Rights of Prisoners 

Indian and International Perspective of Rights of Prisoners 

This article is written by Shivani Agrawal, a 2nd-year law student at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. The article discusses the national and international aspects of the Rights available to the prisoners. A prisoner or an inmate is any person who is kept in custody, in jail, or in prison for an act committed by him which is against the law of the land. He faces deprivation of liberty against his will by detainment, servitude, or coercive restriction.

The rights of prisoners deal with the rights of inmates while they are behind the bars. It is rather shocking and sad to know that a civilized country like India does not have a codified law for the rights of the prisoners. However, the judiciary has recognized a long list of rights and has directed the authorities to abide by them in the absence of legislation. But practically in the absence of legislation, these rights find a place only on the paper and are far from being executed.

Evolution of Prisoner’s Rights

In the 1800s most prisoners were sent to jail as opposed to capital punishments and later through a “hand-off” strategy that affected the courts throughout the twentieth century. It was only during the 1960s that a movement started for the protection of rights of prisoners and alteration in their treatment in prison. There has been a minor shift from the deterrent aspect to a reformative and rehabilitative one.

In the famous case of Charles Sobhraj v. Superintendent Tihar Jail, 1996[i] the Supreme Court justice Krishna Iyer held that “except for the fact that the compulsion to live in a prison requires by its force the lack of certain rights, like the rights to move freely or to practice a profession of one’s choice, a prisoner is otherwise eligible to the basic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution” and “the convicted persons go to prison as punishment and not for punishment”.

However, the current status of prisoners in our country is still atrocious. As per the Prisoners Statistics India Report, 2015 nearly 67% of the prisoners in India are under trial prisoners and a large number of prisoners die in the custody of police and security forces due to torture, every year.

also read- Journey of Article 21 in context of Right to Privacy

Rights of Prisoners in India

The Constitution of India does not expressly guarantee any rights to the prisoners, however, in the case of T.V. Vatheeswaran v. State of Tamil Nadu[ii]it was held that the rights guaranteed in Article 14, 19, and 21 are available to prisoners as well as freemen. The walls of prison cannot keep out the fundamental rights.

The rights of prisoners that are implicitly provided by the Constitution of India are-

  1. Right to legal aid– Legal assistance plays a very important role in the life of an accused awaiting trial or any prisoner in general. The 42nd Constitutional Amendment (1976) incorporated Article 39-A under the Directive Principles of State Policy, which deals with services of free legal aid. However, the article is a part of DPSP, hence not enforceable but the underline principle is of utmost importance.

Thus, it becomes incumbent upon the state to keep article 39-A in mind while formulating rules for prisoners. in the case of Madhav              Hayawadanrao Hoskot v. the State of Maharashtra[iii]the Supreme Court held that it the duty of the government to aid and provide free legal aid to the accused or convicted individual.

Justice Krishna Iyer declared that “Right to free legal aid is the State’s duty and not Government’s charity”.

  1. Right against inhuman treatment of prisoners– Custodial violence by prison staff or by police is not uncommon in India. Physical assault is not permissible under the law and is violative of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The Supreme Court has held in various cases that all prisoners have a right to be protected against any type of cruel or inhuman treatment. The courts have highlighted the harsh treatments faced by the prisoners and have directed the authorities to keep a check and regulate the same.

The courts have prohibited the use of various instruments like chains, handcuffs, straitjackets, etc. In the case of Raghubir Singh v. State of Bihar[iv]the Supreme Court expressed its anguish over the police torment by granting life imprisonment to a cop responsible for the demise of a suspect in police custody.

  1. Right against solitary confinement and bar fetters– Solitary confinement is a kind of imprisonment where the prisoner is kept in a different cell with little or no contact with other inmates. The inmate is also subjected to strict monitoring by the authorities.

The courts have held that solitary confinement has an exceptionally corrupting and dehumanizing effect on a prisoner. The courts, however, placed exceptions for unusual situations where the convict is a direct threat to others or discipline excessively notorious inmates.

The legitimacy of solitary confinement was questioned in the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration[v] where it was held that imposition of solitary confinement is to be made only in exceptional cases where the inmate is of such violent nature that his segregation from other inmates is of utmost necessity.

  1. Right to a speedy trial– “Justice delayed is justice denied” is an important principle of criminal jurisprudence. Every prisoner has a right to speedy trial irrespective of the crime committed by him.

On commission of a crime, an accused should be given a speedy trial to punish him or his crime or to absolve him from it, in case he is not guilty. The right to a speedy trial guaranteed under Section 309 of Cr.PC. differs in letter and spirit and is not appropriately executed. In the case of AR Antulay v. RS Nayak[vi]the Supreme Court held that an accused cannot be denied the right of speedy trial only on the basis that he did not demand the same.

The court also held that the right to a speedy trial under Article 21 applies to charges at any stage whether examination, request, trial, bid, modification, and retrial.

  1. Right to health and medical treatment– The Constitution guarantees the right to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental healthcare to every individual, including prisoners.

The right to health and medical treatment is an important part of Article 21 and imposes an obligation on the State to safeguard every individual’s life.

In the case of Parmanand Katara v. Union of India[vii]it was held that every doctor has an obligation to extend his service with due diligence to protect the life of every individual.

do visit- The Genesis and the Proliferation of Public Interest Litigation in India

Rights of Prisoners in other Countries

A large proportion of prisoners, who are not yet convicted of any crime, are put in inhuman, cruel, and degrading conditions. The detention conditions might vary from country to country but the standards everywhere are shockingly low.

The prison conditions even in the most developed nations are plagued by overcrowding, poor infrastructure, lack of medical care, custodial violence, and corruption. The primary focus on locking away the prisoners and little or no concern about their living conditions has led to the failure in remedying their grave situation.

However, with an increased focus on human rights, prisoner’s rights have seen a shift in some of the countries. In the case of Platek v. Aderhold[viii] in the USA, the courts stated that they had no right to interfere with the conduct of prisons or its rules and regulations but after the case of Johnson v. Avery[ix] in 1969the US courts recognized certain rights of the prisoners.

Even before that, as per the Eight Amendment of the US Constitution, which was adopted in 1791, prisoners have a right to be free from cruel and inhuman treatment like torture, abuse, or violation of one’s basic dignity.

read- Mental Health Care Bill, 2017

The inmates also have a right to complain about the prison conditions and also raise concerns about the condition to the courts. Disabled inmates are also allowed certain accommodations to ensure equal access to the prison facilities as the abled ones.

The dismayed condition of the prisoners can be dated back to the World Wars. The prisoners were denied several civil rights and were forced into labor or murdered recklessly. This brought about some changes in the International prisoner laws. The UN has laid certain minimum requirements for the treatment of inmates which includes, proper food, hygiene, medical facilities, and bedding facilities.

A large number of local human rights groups, around the world have made efforts to call attention to these abuses. They have fought to obtain access to the prisons and have monitored and publicized the abuse on various events.

Even in the United Kingdom, the chief of prisons did a vigorous investigation on the penal facilities of the country. The Human Rights Commission of the Philippines also pressed the government to improve the deplorable prison conditions.

also read- Criminal Justice System: Inconsistencies in the application of remissions


It has been established that imprisonment does not take away the basic fundamental rights of the prisoners and they do not cease to be human beings. It is incumbent upon the State to provide proper living conditions to the prisoners and a rehabilitative environment for them to become better beings. It is also the duty of the state to provide facilities to educate the prisoners of their rights to prevent their exploitation by the powerful.

The judiciary has played a significant role in the upliftment of the prisoners. It has devised various new tools to safeguard the interests of the prisoners and has acted as their savior.

However, we are still a long way from our objective of protecting the rights of prisoners. Codification of prisoner’s rights, public awareness of their rights, and proper surveillance inside the prisons can be revolutionary to the appalling conditions of the prisoners in our country.

read more about this topic here- Rights of Prisoners

[i] Charles Sobraj v. The Suptd., Central Jail, Tihar, New Delhi 1978 AIR 1514, 1979 SCR (1) 512

[ii] T.V. Vatheeswaran vs State of Tamil Nadu 1983 AIR 361, 1983 SCR (2) 348

[iii] Madhav Hayawadanrao Hoskot v. the State of Maharashtra 1978 AIR 1548, 1979 SCR (1) 192

[iv] Raghubir Singh & Others Etc vs State of Bihar 1987 AIR 149, 1986 SCR (3) 802

[v] Sunil Batra vs Delhi Administration 1980 AIR 1579, 1980 SCR (2) 557

[vi] A.R. Antulay vs R.S. Nayak & Anr 1988 AIR 1531, 1988 SCR Supl. (1) 1

[vii] Pt. Parmanand Katara vs Union of India & Ors 1989 AIR 2039, 1989 SCR (3) 997

[viii] Platek v. Aderhold, 73 F.2d 173 (5th Cir. 1934)

[ix] Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 89 S. Ct. 747 (1969)

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