Indian Prison System under British Rule



The concept of incarceration is one which has been used as a form of punishment worldwide and throughout various eras of history. Today, prisons are used to keep persons awaiting trial in safe custody, and to confine people who have been convicted of certain crimes. The history of prisons can be divided into three broad stages – the first was in the medieval period, when dungeons in castles were used for the incarceration of criminals. Subsequently, there was a phase of experimental imprisonment for certain crimes and finally, incarceration was adopted as a substitute for all capital punishment.[1]

The modern Indian prison system is a legacy of British colonial rule. Its roots can be traced back to England in the eighteenth century, during a time when even the slightest criminal offence was punishable by death. However, the severity of the punishment meant that juries were reluctant to convict and very few of those who were convicted were truly executed. The Select Committee of 1819 proposed to provide alternative punishment to execution and thereby increase the number of convictions. Subsequently the Peel Acts were passed between 1826 and 1827. These Acts reduced the number of capital offences and provided for other methods of punishment. After 1827, some Peel Acts gave judges the discretion to sentence criminals to prison terms.[2]

The British Parliament granted the East India Company the power to rule India in 1784. As a result, the Company made various attempts to reform the existing indigenous systems of law and justice. After the 1790s, incarceration became a common form of punishment in many areas of the country. The East India Company facilitated the setting up of numerous prisons, both by building new jails and converting old military barracks and forts. Penal settlements were also established for more serious offenders.[3] However, in England, the deterrent value of transportation was put to question by the Select Committee on Transportation. The British began to doubt the ability of penal transportation to reform criminals and by the 1850s, it was widely opposed. The solution to this was seen widely as imprisonment.[4] There were 40 jails in the North-West Provinces and 55 in the Bengal Presidency by 1857.

Inefficiencies of Colonial Prison System

The colonial prison system in India during the 1800s was riddled with corruption and inefficiencies. The British administration often found itself unable to control its prisoners, and the imposition of many arbitrary rules and systems led them to revolt more often than not. This chapter will delve into the many laxities and inherently corrupt systems that led to the largely inefficient prison system in pre-Independence India.

  • Convict Officers

The Section 23 of the Prisons Act of 1894 provides for the appointment of convict officers. It states that ‘Prisoners who have been appointed as officers of prisons shall be deemed to be public servants within the meaning of the Indian Penal Code.[5]’ As per this act, certain convicts were considered eligible to be appointed for any or all of the three grades of convict officers- convict warder, convict overseer and convict night watchman.

In the nineteenth century, however, the appointment of convict officers caused large-scale corruption and problems in the prison system. These criminals who were accorded special privileges and advantages over others inevitably misused their power. The corresponding inefficiency of the prison staff resulted in the management of the prison being in the hands of these convict officers.[6] They often used this power to their own benefit, indulging in smuggling, extortion, torture and a number of other offences.[7]

The Indian Jails Committee Report of 1919-20 investigated in detail the effect that the system of convict warders had on the prison system. It agreed that their employment was excessive and that this was probably for economic reasons.[8] Some members of the committee recommended that the system be abolished in its entirety. They believed that no prisoner should be given a position that is superior to the others. The recommendations that no prisoner should have an independent charge over any group or that they should not be allowed outside their barracks at night show that many situations with the empowered convict officers had gotten out of control.[9]

Hence the employment of convict officers in the colonial prisons for numerous reasons- including the inefficiency of British prison administration and the economic feasibility of employing prisoners- allowed corruption to breed from within the jails. It was among the many inherent plagues of the prisons under colonial administration.

  • Juvenile Offenders

The system which the British had in place for the punishment of juvenile offenders was a failure. Part of this was due to skewed British views on the ability of Indian children to reform.

The modernization of juvenile penal institutions did not result in the reduction of corporal punishment. Although modern infrastructure such as classrooms and buildings were built, primitive methods of punishment such as flogging also expanded simultaneously. The government because increasingly reluctant to incarcerate children and more dependent on physically painful forms of punishment.[10]

The reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners in India could not be the same as that prevailing in England due to the racial distinctions among the population and the importance of keeping these in mind. Many of the British had very firm beliefs regarding the incorrigibility of Indian juvenile delinquents, particularly those who had come from criminal backgrounds.[11] There was debate over whether these children should be accepted into the juvenile institutions for reform, both because they could corrupt other children and because they were believed incapable of reformation.[12]

The juvenile reformatories and wards also failed to cater to the needs of child convicts. The men supervising the institutions did not have the qualifications or expertise needed. Some prisons were even headed by doctors; these doctors were employed not because they knew child psychology, but because they knew how to impose painful punishment on the juveniles in appropriate dosages.[13] Whipping was considered to have a significant effect on decreasing crime rates by some. The Indian Jails Committee declared that whipping should be tried only once on any child; if it failed, it was not to be resorted to a second time.[14]

The efforts of Mary Carpenter, a social worker, to encourage the building of better juvenile institutions and to imbibe modern punitive strategies, failed. She had advocated institutions in which the incarcerated children passed through certain levels of rehabilitation through which they could accept the disciplines of the reformatory. However, this was staunchly opposed by the government and prison administrators. They criticised her for not understanding the peculiar behaviour of native convicts and how they were immune to shame and hence could not be moulded; even if they were, released children would once again be sucked into a life of crime by their circumstances and familial influences.[15]

Hence we can conclude that the juvenile penal institutions in colonial India were not equipped with the necessary features or professionals that were required to facilitate the reformation of juvenile offenders. Moreover, there was a dominant stream of British officials who did not believe in the ability of native children to reform and hence felt that reformatories and the modern techniques of reformation were lost on them. This shows the inefficiencies present in the juvenile institutions under the British.

  • Jail Mortality and Sanitation

The prison mortality rate in the late nineteenth century was very high. It was reported that Madras had the highest with 42.62 per 1,000, Bengal with 42.56 and Bombay with 33.5. Most of these were due to respiratory illnesses, smallpox, bowel complaints, tuberculosis and cholera.[16]

Mortality tended to be highest among new prisoners, mainly because they could not adjust to the sudden changes in circumstances and hence were vulnerable to the diseased which often plagued Indian prisons such as those mentioned above. Many tribals and migrants perished in their first days because they could not adjust to the changes in diet and climate.[17]

Many of the diseases in the jails were caused due to the lack of proper sanitation facilities for the prisoners. The report of the Indian Jails Committee defended the poor sanitation in jails by claiming that economic restrictions did not permit for their improvement.[18] By claiming that ‘economy is an essential consideration in all recommendations on sanitary matters’[19] the colonial rulers showed that they had no intentions of significantly improving the conditions for the prisoners and that sanitation was in no way a priority, The latrine accommodations were highly inadequate in many prisons. Water supplies too, were not regular because the government considered it beyond their means.[20]

Race, Religion and Caste

  • Religion

The differences between the provisions made for religion in British and Indian prisons are clearly demarcated by J. Chinna Durai. While prisoners in England are allowed to worship through special arrangements made for them, Catholics, Protestants and Jews alike, and to observe their religious holidays, there was no space for religion in the colonial prisons.[21] Prisoners were expected to leave their religion behind and provisions were not made for them to observe their traditions.

Despite colonial claims that they would not interfere in matters relating to religion, the government had a tendency to impose such disciplinary measures and rules that violated the religious beliefs and customs of the prisoners.[22] This was particularly illustrated in 1855, when the Inspector of Jails ordered the confiscation of a number of personal items of all the prisoners, including the brass lotahs which many Hindus were known to use. This resulted in riots in the Muzaffarpur jail.[23]


  • Caste

Caste, too was a factor which could not be ignored in the daily life of India’s prisons. Despite the fact that the colonial penal institutions denied that caste played any role among the prisoners lives, it was clear that this was not so. Prisoners of high castes, at one point, were provided with their own cooks and water carriers.[24]

The issue of caste politics in prisons can be illustrated through the protests against the introduction of a common messing system in 1842. Prisoners who had previously been allowed to cook their own food were now forced to eat food which was made by prison cooks and alongside members of different castes. This was followed by outrage and revolts which deterred the government from implementing it fully. They accepted the futility of the system if it would lead to bloodshed.[25]

Although a regular prison uniform was prescribed, certain jails made exceptions for higher castes. Parsis were permitted special undergarments known as sadra and Brahmins could wear sowla cloths while eating. By recognizing certain religious or caste requirements and not other, this created communal friction between prisoners.

  • Race

There were clear differences in the way European and Indian prisoners were treated in the prisons. It was essential that even in the penal institutions, white superiority had to prevail and be maintained. The financial resources invested in white prisoners were far greater than those afforded to natives.[26]

Racial privilege was clear in all aspects of daily prison life, including in the regulation that natives got only two meals per day while Europeans got three. Their diets were also different, the whites being allowed a largely meat-based diet while this was denied to Indians.[27]

Hence the distinctions of race, caste and religions were all prevalent in the colonial penal institutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although the British administration boasted of keeping the prisons secular, advantages were afforded to higher castes and those considered racially superior. The prison administration also failed to keep form violating the religious beliefs of convicts in their disciplinary measures and as a result frequently faced revolts and uprisings.

Benefits of Indian Prisons

This chapter will discuss some of the economic and other benefits that the British administration reaped by running Indian prisons, in order to throw light on their motives behind establishing a prison system in colonial India.

  • Convict Labour

Prisons were a good source of unskilled labour. The British administration in India recognized the various benefits of employing prisoners for hard labour. Convicts were sent to work in the construction of roads, digging of canals for irrigation and clearing river beds. [28]

There were two main reasons for the government using convict labour for public works projects. The first and foremost was the economic factor- it was more feasible to employ prisoners in those hard labour jobs which otherwise had a scarce supply of manpower. However, the legal reasoning for this was that convicts needed to be punished adequately and in accordance with their crimes.[29]

The 1850s saw a switch in the purposes of convict labour from public works to industries. Industrial work, which reaped profits, allowed the prisoners to contribute towards their own  prison costs and significantly benefitted the colonial government. In this sense, income began to gain importance over reformation of prisoners.[30] Jail industries developed in various areas, including jute and cotton, leather, wool and carpentry. As skilled labour also began to be provided by the convicts, the government began to see convict labour less and less as a means of a reform and more as an end in itself.[31]

By the late nineteenth century, prison labour industries became highly productive and brought in substantial amounts of revenue. Many prisons became self-sufficient. In 1862, the jails at Alipur and Hughli were able to meet the entire cost of prison maintenance.[32] The gross profits earned from prison manufacture industries in 1868 was 61,200/-. The Alipore Gaol Press earned almost 80/- per prisoner. This idea of prisons being self-sufficient was encouraged by Jeremy Bentham. He felt that prison labour could be used to inculcate work ethics in the convicts but condemned  using prison labour for profit.[33]

 But this was not the case in colonial India. Prisoners were exploited by the government and treated as property. This resulted in their growing disgust for the work they were forced to do for the benefit of the government and hence the skills and training they acquired during their jail time was of no use for they would not make use of them upon re-entering normal society.[34]

  • Experimental Medicine

The colonial prisons played an important role in the development of medical knowledge and experimentation for the West. As taken up in Chapter 1, jail mortality and sickness were important concerns in the prison. Mortality rates were high and medical professionals were often employed in great number. This was partially because they were needed to supervise administration of corporal punishment, especially in juvenile reformatories. Hence medical professionals came to be involved in disciplinary matters of the jails, and medical administration became one of the most important matters affecting prison management.[35]

Prisons were the most convenient spaces for professionals to practice and experiment because medicine could be imposed upon inmates without the cultural and social barriers which would prohibit a similar experiment in a civil society.[36] The populations of prisons were also felt to be representative of patterns which would occur in normal society. They could be statistically counted in a way that the general population could not and also provided a prototype of the Indian physique.[37]

The prisons were often plagued with a number of diseases and illnesses. These provided ample ground for the colonial officials to experiment on the inmates, who had acquired the infections mostly due to a lack of sanitary facilities.[38] Jails were easy places to obtain corpses for dissection because the regular population was opposed to the idea of medical post-mortems and would not have allowed it. Almost very prisoner who died would undergo a post-mortem in 1860s Bengal.[39]

Vaccines and medicines were experimented on prison populations. Immunization trials against cholera, plague and typhoid were conducted in the late nineteenth century. Doses of quinine were administered to prisoners during times when malaria was prevalent; even Muslims who were fasting during Ramadan were not exempted from the regular dosage.[40]

Hence the British medical officers made ample use of prison population in order to experiment with drugs, conduct post-mortems on the deceased and make scientific observations about dietary patterns and how they affected the physicality of the inmates. Prisons did not have many of the barriers which the general population had against the interference of Western medicine.


Hence one can conclude that the prison system in colonial India was one riddled with inconsistencies, corruption and prejudice. It neither allowed for prisoners to reform, nor did it even provide basic facilities for those incarcerated. Despite India’s independence, however, many jail manuals continue to be based on the colonial-era Prisons Act of 1894.[41]  The modern prisons system of India, therefore, has failed to remove those failings which have been inherent ever since it’s development under British rule.  

[1] Dr. L.P Raju, Historical Evolution of Prison System in India, 4 INDIAN JOURNAL OF APPLIED RESEARCH 298 (2014).

[2] David Skuy, Macaulay and the Indian Penal Code of 1862, 32 MODERN ASIAN STUDIES 513, 526-530 (1998).


[4] supra note 2, at 546.

[5] Section 23, Indian Prisons Act


[7] Id.

[8] Report of the Indian Jails Committee 1919-20 p.69.

[9] Id.

[10] Satadru Sen, A Separate Punishment: Juvenile Offenders in Colonial India,  63 THE JOURNAL OF ASIAN STUDIES 81, 82 (2004).

[11] Id.

[12] Id.


[14] supra note 8, at 201.

[15] Id at 19.

[16] India and the Colonies, 1 THE BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL 784 (1884).

[17] supra note 6, at 168.

[18] supra note 8, at 168

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] J. Chinna Durai, Indian Prisons,  11 JOURNAL OF COMPARATIVE LEGISLATION AND INTERNATIONAL LAW 245, 248 (1929).


[23] Id.


[25] supra note 6, at 151.


[27] Id at 51.

[28] supra note 6, at 176.


[30] supra note 6, at 177.

[31] supra note 21, at 247.

[32] supra note 3, at 36.

[33] supra note 2, at 547.

[34] supra note 21, at 248.

[35] supra note 6, at 179.


[37] Id.


[39] supra note 6, at 181.

[40] Id.

[41] M. R., Prisons Are For Riddance, 9 ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY 1646 (1974).

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