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This article has been written by Diya Banerjee from Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA. This article explores the ways in which forensic psychology can improve prison rehabilitation programs and the debate on rehabilitation versus punishment.  


Indian population is heading towards the critical issue of population explosion. The more the number of people, the higher is the poverty. As more and more people get pushed below the poverty line, so does the rate of crime increase. Another fact to be kept in mind is that domestic violence against women and children is the top crime in India. Most of the victims of domestic abuse are women and children from poorer households. Combining these two factors, most of the people indulge in these crimes are put behind the bars. But did you know just like the population of India is on the brink of exploding, so is the condition of the  Indian prisons? But that is not the only problem. The prisons in India are understaffed, overcrowded and filthy to say the least. There is a dearth of medical professionals too. This has proved to be fatal because the mortality rate of prisoners has increased from 311.8 in 2011 to 382.2 in 2016. Also, a major drawback in the Indian legal system is that the procedure of trials is riddled with delay, making the total percent of undertrial nearly 68%. This prolongs the time one unnecessarily spends in the prisons. These delays have also brought out the reality of the dark side of Indian prisons; there have been cases where prisoners were physically and mentally abused and sodomized as a form of a  ‘punishment’. There have been countless such cases of human rights and prison laws violations. Indian prison cells were conventionally made as a centre for punishing the criminals, but since the early 2010s, the idea of simply punishing the criminals has become dull. Instead, more human rights activists started to protest that among the imprisoned criminals, there were people who deserve another chance to start over and live the rest of their life out of the jails. There came the time when awareness regarding the sad conditions of prisons and abuse of prison laws brought about worldwide debates. The activists insisted that helping the criminals who committed a crime out of pure inevitable or uncontrollable circumstances should certainly serve a jail term but should also be given therapy so that once they complete their sentence and are let out, they can live whatever is left of their life as a better citizen with more awareness of their actions. This is where the role of rehabilitation comes in. But how effective is it, and what more can be done for it? Is it enough, or does the conventional style of punishing continue to hold merit?

Forensic Psychology: History and its development

The definition of forensic psychology is broad and narrow at the same time. It means to combine the practice of psychology and law. If you have seen series such as the  “Criminal Minds” or “The Mentalist”, you will definitely get what and how forensic psychology works. A forensic psychologist helps in understanding the motive behind why a person would indulge in criminal activities or anti-social behaviour. 

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Forensic psychology is a relatively newer field of psychology but its first seeds were laid down in 1879 by the father of psychology Wilhelm Wundt. In the year 1917 psychologist Willian Marston found that the systolic blood pressure could be used to determine when someone is lying. This was the foundation on which the present polygraph detector has been developed.  Forensic psychology gained momentum after World War II because prior to that psychologists served only as expert witnesses to those trials which did not infringe upon the ‘credibility’ of medical professionals. Only in 2001, did the American Psychological Association officially recognize forensic psychology as a specialization under the study of psychology. Since then many students of psychology have done dual degrees in psychology and law because of its growing scope in analysing the legal applications of law and such institutions.

What distinguishes Forensic Psychology from Mainstream Psychology?

Honestly, the job of a forensic psychologist is quite limited, in time and requirement, but it is of importance in deciding the judgement, sentence, and nature of punishment one would be subjected to. Also, in general cases, one would seek the help of a psychologist out of their own volition but in the case of forensic psychologists, the clients might resist the help they are being given, as  The need for forensic psychologists is to practically assist the legal officers of the case. They are required to have their education in criminal psychology, law and criminal justice. 

It is to be noted that there is a significant difference between a criminal psychologist and a forensic psychologist. The former primarily focuses on identifying the motive behind a crime and profiling the accused, whereas, the latter does that along with counselling the accused and his or her family. 

Rehabilitation or Punishment: Condition of Indian Prisons and Prisoners

There is a high probability for a prisoner to be rearrested for committing a crime after getting released for completing his jail sentence. In the United States, the probability of an ex-prisoner to get imprisoned again within three years since his release is a startling 68 percent. There have been cases where a man was arrested for domestic abuse, served his term, got released, and then killed his wife. So, does punishment serve any purpose after all?

Punishment is a conventional and acceptable way for prisoners to repent for their wrongful actions. Criminals convicted of heinous crimes like (gang) rape, mob lynching, domestic and child abuse, murder, manslaughter, etc. should be dealt with an iron fist because research shows that most of these offenders do such acts either out of poor impulse control or some sort of psychiatric issue which was never reported by them. Substance abuse and alcoholism also is a huge contributor to the rising rate of crimes, especially related to domestic abuse. But as many argue, is imprisoning them for lifetime enough of a solution? How many from their numbers realize the consequences of their actions? 

As mentioned above, a few percent of the offenders commit crimes out of some kind of mental trigger caused by an unreported or undetected psychiatric issue including schizophrenia, depression, etc. The lack of awareness of mental health and the stigma has been an issue which has had a snowball effect on the rising crime rate. Furthermore, many accused undertrial get arrested for extreme but real acts of self-defence. The delay in bureaucratic systems unnecessarily makes such men and women suffer as well. 

In such cases, punishment is really not the right way to go for. Getting wrongfully arrested or sentenced for a tenure more than required is enough of trauma, the actual getting punished and harassed does nothing more than affecting the psychological and emotional balance of a person. The suicide of the prime accused in the 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape case revealed the dark side of Indian prisons, bringing out that the number of suicide is of 4 persons per day according to a 2001 research, and since then the percentage has risen by nearly 5.50 per cent. The funny part is that most of these deaths get earmarked under “death by natural cause” or “assault by outside element” and “others” is for death by unnatural causes. But the Asian Centre for Human Rights reported in 2011 that most of these days are due to “custodial torture”, many resulting in suicides by the inmates. Women prisoners are subjected to rape and sexual harassment at the hands of other inmates and prison authorities as ‘punishment’ for their wrong actions and conduct. 

In a nutshell, what goes inside prisons is seldom disclosed to the public because it is seen that those who might speak up are shown their position or just die out of the sheer lack of care for human rights prisoners have by the authorities.  Now if I ask you, rehabilitation or punishment, the natural answer would be to make it a necessity for inmates to have a counsellor and psychiatrist so that there is a sign for any mental problem or disturbance they can be accordingly looked after and supervised. Also, if there would have been a mental health provider or a medical professional present, the number of cases of mental harassment could go down. This would also make the process of rehabilitating the inmates much easier as their resistance toward seeking mental health would also be de-stigmatized. 

Role of Forensic Psychology in the Rehabilitation of Prisoners and Offenders

Many of those in the prison authorities fail to understand that a good percentage of criminal behaviour is out of an underlying mental illness and lack of access to the required medical help. What could not be accessed by the inmate outside the prison due to poverty can be provided within the prison for free. This is where a forensic psychologist can provide his or her services.

In order to understand the role of forensic psychologists, let us break down the important tasks a forensic psychologist has to do. This would not only make it easier to remember what makes them different but also how their presence and involvement in the judicial system can make a positive impact on awarding correct and well-reasoned sentences, as well as prioritize the healthcare services which a prisoner is to be provided with during his jail tenure. 

Criminal investigation 

It is the entire process of analysing the crime scene, interviewing the witnesses, aiding the police in their additional investigations and suggesting opinions on the treatment of the offender. Forensic psychologists have to be involved since the beginning so that if the offence was a result of any kind of mental illness, it is detected and gets dealt with accordingly by the authorities.   

Crime analysis

Also called intelligence analysis, is the stage where the forensic psychologist helps the police in analysing and collecting the relevant evidence based on the links between the behaviour of the offender and the testimonies by the victim(s) and witnesses.

Interviewing and witness research 

Interviewing the witnesses of the case is an important aspect to determine what exactly happened and infer from those interviews the actual motive that caused such an act to happen. The presence of a forensic psychologist along with police officials is a requirement because the psychologist can figure out through studying the witnesses who are lying, hiding or might turn hostile. The manner in which the interview is conducted is also of importance. 

Police Psychology

Repeated exposure to unpleasant or negative crime scenes does have an impact on a police officer. After all, continuous exposure to hostility can alter and affect one’s psychological as well as mental peace. Forensic psychologists have been involved in recruiting and selecting the right kind of policemen for a particular case since the last two decades in various countries. This is because they understand the impact a right officer can have on a case over an officer who might not be psychologically fit for the same case. 

Expert Eyewitness 

Although in India the jury trial system has been abolished, the presiding officer of a certain typical criminal case might need the assistance of an expert eyewitness to determine the way forward for the case. Forensic psychologists in this respect help the presiding officer not with the facts but with the opinions or mental/emotional aspect of the case. Emotional does not mean the plight of the accused’s family but the mental and emotional state which led to the circumstances of the case. These opinions are stated after a thorough study of the accused, the victim or family and the witnesses. In this stage, the sentence to be awarded is based on these premises of possible inferred conclusions. 

Good Lives Model 

In prison, the psychologists create what is known as the Good Lives Model which is aimed at teaching the inmates what it means to live a ‘good life’ by the society and which actions are seen as a deviance from the ‘good’. It basically teaches the inmates the norms of society which they should follow once they are released. 

Therapeutic Jurisprudence

The basic job requirement of forensic psychologists is to provide therapy. Therapeutic jurisprudence showcases that every law has been created as a stricter form of therapy which is punitive in nature. This model is also aimed at the well-being of the inmates by following the legal reformative provisions of laws to improve the behaviour of the offenders so that they understand the legal consequences of an offence or anti-social behaviour. It also lays down the legal guidelines the authorities are supposed to follow so that no legal right of the offender is violated as well. 


Human Rights Model 

The Human Rights Model is not only for the inmates but also for the prison authorities so that they are well-aware about which of their actions violate the human rights of the inmates and which actions can be considered as a correct form of punishment. This model aims to balance the aspect of punishing and respecting the human rights of the prisoners. Prisoners are taught this model to respect each other so that internal aggression between them is reduced to a minimum. 


Rehabilitation is the best alternative to help the prisoners bring back the normalcy in their lives and social position in society. Right now, rehabilitation is still considered as the second or in some cases, the last resort, to help the prisoners. Punishment is important, no one denies that, but the ones who were jailed for comparatively lesser brutal crimes or can be sympathized with, they should be given a chance to go back to their normal lives in society. In India, forensic psychology has to be given a platform where experts and students pursuing psychology can meet and discuss the possibilities of development in this field which is slowly gaining attention in countries such as the  United States. Involving forensic psychologists will prove to be an efficient way to provide clarity upon the accused being really the perpetrator or not. Also, it would ensure that the mental well-being of the prisoners is being prioritized along, which in the Indian scenario has been compromised for ages.


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