A Brief Overview of Prisoners’ Rights in India


The safety and protection of the people must be regarded as the highest law of the land. for this, India is regarded as the pillar for justice for redressing the complaints of every citizen and also punishing offenders. Every human is born with dignity and rights which are backed with proper reasoning. Such rights are integral to everyone irrelevant of their background, sex, colour, race etc. and this also includes prisoners. In India, Article 21 of The Constitution lays down how no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. In Pt. ParmanandKatara vs. Union of India and ors. – (1989) 4 SCC 286, the Hon’ble Supreme Court has held that:

“Article 21 of the Constitution casts the obligation on the State to preserve life.The patient, whether he be an innocent person or be a criminal liable to punishment under the laws of the society, it is the obligation of those who are in charge of the health of the community to preserve life.”

Preserving life along with medical benefits as mentioned also includes protection of prisoners against unfair practices like torture, excessive solitary confinement, assault etc. it is the responsibility of the Government to protect the prisoners.Punishments in Indi have taken a gradual change from deterrent to reformative or rehabilitative. Thus courts will try as best as possible to avoid long sentences or harsh punishments keeping in view interests of all. Along with this, precedents show various other rights that are available to prisoners. As rightly said by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer “Convicts are not by mere reason of the conviction denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise possess.”Prisoners enjoy all rights that are enjoyed by free citizens except those lost particularly as an incident of punishment.So what are these rights available to prisoners?

            In 2017, in Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons(2017) 10 SCC 658, Supreme Court reiterated that providing medical benefits to prisoners is a human right. In the recent case ofAjaysinghKuvarsinghDahiya vs. The State of Maharashtra & Anr (2018)., the Bombay High Court took a step further to establish that these medical facilities to prisoners must be provided free of charge.Such medical facilities include treatments, injections, and medicines and may include, if necessary, being admitted to the hospital. Prisoners suffer from a handicap when they are in the prison. They are deprived of the basic choice available to free citizens like choosing a physician, taking a second opinion, proper medicines. They are even open to more diseases and health problems because of being in the prison and may require more medical attention that a free citizen. Thus, it becomes the responsibility of the state to see to it, that prisoners that are under its custody be given all available remedies and be kept in the best possible health.

A huge problem being faced by maximum prisoners in India is the lack of speedy trials. Speedy trial is a right provided under article 21 which guarantees fair and reasonable procedure and KadraPahadiya v State of Biharlaid down that delay in the disposal of cases is a denial of justice. It is always in the best interests of all, be it the guilty or innocent to get the best results as early as possible. A true picture of the devastating situations in the prison came forward in the case of HussainaraKhatoon v. State of Bihar. This case for the first time showed how many men, women and even children had been awaiting their fair trial for years and hadn’t got any yet. Even today, after so many years, the conditions haven’t improved a lot. According to the Prison Statistics India 2015 report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India’s prisons are overcrowded with an occupancy ratio of 14% more than the capacity. More than two-thirds of the inmates are undertrials.These prisoners are accused of sometimes very petty cases and sometimes don’t require punishment for more than maybe a few months but have to endure it for much more. Other than being very populated because of the slow system, another reason is the Bail system. Many prisoners being not economically well off, aren’t able to furnish the high bail amount thus leaving the in the prison for a long while.

Another mandate of Article 21 is free legal aid to prisoners. This provides the prisonersaccess to court and legal facilities and a free and fair trial. It is an essential ingredient to a fair and reasonable outcome. Financial or administrative inability cannot be excuses used by the state for providing this constitutional obligation to accused who aren’t economically well off. This rightto provide free legal aid does not arises the first time an accused is produced before the Magistratebecause this is the time, the accused competent and proper legal advice and denying the right at this stage would go against providing a fair trial.

Custodial torture, handcuffing and solitary confinement are actions against which prisoner have certain rights under the ambit of section 21 of the Constitution. Handcuffing has to be always used as the last resort while treating prisoners. A prisoner can be handcuffed only if the circumstances were justifiable. The court laid down in PremShankerShukla v. Delhi Administrationfreedom of movement, which a prisoner is entitled to under Art.19, cannot be cut down by the application of handcuffs. Handcuffs must be the last resort as there are other ways through which security can be ensured. Custodial Torture is in simple words “stripping a man of his dignity and respect” degrades the self-respect and confidence of a person. Torture doesn’t cause only physical but sometimes even mental damage. Sometimes these actions also lead to custodial deaths. Thus to avoid such outcomes many points have been laid down for officers on following proper procedure and avoiding such unwanted outcomes. Right to minimum wages, education, meet family, expression, and access to books are some of the other rights laid down in carious judgments.

            Prisoners in India have been facing problems for decades. A lot of these rights come through precedents which are sometimes difficult to locate and use in the court of law. Quite a few times people are even unaware of these rights. It is necessary to gather these rights in one place for easier access and implementation and for a better awareness. Even the guilty in India are entitled to these rights however gruesome the crime was because this is how a democratic country works. Equal treatment is the key.

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