Overcrowding in Prisons: A Question of Human Rights


This article is written by Vallika Varshri, a first-year student at Jindal Global Law School (O.P. Jindal Global University)

A prison is a place where the criminal justice system puts its entire hope. [1] The purpose of the criminal justice system is many- reform, rehabilitation, punishment etc. Nonetheless, prisons are key as they are the lacuna in the time before and after. Time in prison determines how the prisoner will turn out, what purpose of justice was fulfilled. Prisons facilitate and guide the process of justice and ultimately determine if justice was served.

Chatterjee says that punishing criminals is a primary function of civil society and therefore the whole criminal justice system would be defunct if it fails [2]. He argues that prisons are necessary for the pursuance of a criminal justice system. However, the evolution of human rights jurisprudence changed the doctrine of punishment, thereby introducing the question of the inclusion of human rights for prisoners. The standard for human rights jurisprudence for prisoners is simple- it is based on a doctrine that advocates for a punishment which is not cruel, degrading or inhuman and punishment which is so should be an offence in itself [3].

Legal Rights of Prisoners

State of AP vs Challa Ramkrishna Reddy held that prisoners are entitled to fundamental rights unless their liberty is curtailed constitutionally. The Supreme Court also emphasised that a prisoner doesn’t cease to be a human being in this case. T V Vatheeswaran v. State of Tamil Nadu further upheld this value by stating that Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution are applicable to all prisoners and freemen [4].
In light of COVID-19, it becomes a must to examine whether human rights are upheld for Indian prisoners or not. The constitutional provisions will entail the fundamental rights like life, liberty, freedom of expression as well as health under Charles Sobraj vs The Supt., Central Jail, Tihar [5].

The Prisons Act, 1984 provides for sanitary accommodation under s4. S4is the provision for shelter and safe custody facilities to prisoners who may be found to be in excess of the prison capacity of a prison. Under the legislation, prisoners have to be medically examined at the time of admission. Provisions specific to epidemics are enlisted in The Model Prison Manual 2016. Guidelines contemplate segregation sheds for infected prisoners, avoidance of overcrowding in cells and isolation cells as well as treatment of patient’s clothing and infected barracks [6].

State of Prisons in India 

Prison Statistics India 2016, published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), reports that there were 4,33,033 prisoners at the end of 2016. More than of the prisoners were under-trials who were detained for less than 6 months. The high number of undertrials is indicative of unnecessary arrests and inadequate legal aid [7].

This means that prisons are often overburdened beyond capacity. The epidemic poses an important question. Since COVID-19 doesn’t have a cure yet, the only way to flatten the curve is by its prevention. Measures to do so include cleanliness, face masks, social distancing and restricting travel. Social distancing becomes increasingly important, with the governments announcing lockdowns to break the chain of contact [8].

Social distancing is difficult to practice in prisons due to its overcapacity. To solve this problem, states have been following the practice of allowing temporary bails to prisoners in an effort to bring down the population. However, this measure is not applicable to those convicted for grave offences. Moreover, the processing of applications is also slow. As a result, prisoners remain reliant on states for the provision of medical services, a service whose quality is often called in question [9].

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Due to these issues, the author wonders if COVID-19 has brought attention to a gross violating of human rights by the states. The question to ask here is not whether states have been taking measures to de-crowd prisons and provide health services, but to question why they were not in place already?

Bhattacharaya states that a contributing factor for poor conditions created by overcrowding is due to delay in justice, quoting a report to state that for every convict, there are two undertrials in prison. This is further exacerbated by increased crime and arrest rates, procedural delays, infrastructural deficiencies as well as ineffective counsels. Economically, the prison pockets are not only shallow, but budget utilisation is also ineffective. Prisons are understaffed as well, including in medical professionals and facilities [9].

Liability of States?

Maintenance of these factors is the state’s obligation. In fact, prisons are an important instrument of the state in furthering its function of providing criminal justice. Thereby, state governments are responsible for the management and maintenance of prisons and are subsequently liable for them. Moreover, the states are legally obligated under the Constitution to extend fundamental rights as well as through the provisions of the Prisons Act, 1984. Since the obligation to maintaining humane conditions in prisons lie on the state, there’s a need to question whether overcrowding is a human rights violation or not. Under the light of legal provisions, one may observe that overcrowding will lead to the impingement of fundamental rights. The prisons’ will be deprived of autonomous space for freedom and equality. Moreover, overcrowding is a disservice to availing medical service rights, especially when such a scarce right has to be stretched over a dense population.

It seems that due to the inability of states to effectively manage and oversee prisons, prisoners are at the edge of the sword as their fundamental rights get cut in half. With overcrowding also resulting in the inability to maintain social distancing norms, this brings the question of whether the state may considered liable for the spread of the COVID-19 virus, if at all it is?


[1] Chandrani Chatterjee, Life of a Prisoner: A Legal Study System and Its Reforms in India, 9 Indian J.L. & Just. 141 (2018) https://heinonline.org/HOL/PDFsearchable?handle=hein.journals/ijlj9&collection=journals&section=17&id=&print=section&sectioncount=1&ext=.pdf&nocover=

[2] Id

[3] Id

[4] Id

[5] 1978 AIR 1514, 1979 SCR (1) 512 https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1518037/

[6] Akash Anurag and Aniket Raj, COVID19-IX: Rights of Prisoners during a Pandemic, LSPR [25th April, 2020] https://lawschoolpolicyreview.com/2020/04/25/covid19-ix-rights-of-prisoners-during-a-pandemic/

[7] Mrinal Sharma, The State of Indian Prisons, The Hindu [26th June, 2019] https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-state-of-indian-prisons/article28138352.ece

[8] Id at 6

[9] Ananya Bhattacharaya, Some Indian states have more than twice as many prisoners than they can house, Quartz India [7th November, 2019] https://qz.com/india/1743852/overcrowded-indian-prisons-are-understaffed-underfunded/

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