Human Rights

In this article, Ashok Samal from HNLU, Raipur discusses Human Rights violation of prisoners in India.

What are Human Rights

All human beings are born independent, free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act accordingly, living in a high spirit of love and brotherhood.

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, irrelevant to our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination as these rights are fundamental to us because we are human. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, statutes, customary international law, general principles and other sources of international law for example ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

Non-discrimination is a sine-qua-non principle in international human rights law. The principle is present in all the major human rights treaties and provides the central and particular theme of some of the international human rights conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The principle applies to everyone in relation to all human rights and freedoms and it prohibits discrimination on the basis of a list of never-ending categories such as sex, race, color and so on. The principle of non-discrimination is complemented by the principle of equality[1],“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Also, at the individual level, while we are entitled our human rights, we should also respect the human rights of others.

Human Rights of Prisoners: World perspective

The principle of universality of human rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law. This principle, as first emphasized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, has been reiterated in numerous international human rights conventions, declarations, and resolutions. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, for example, noted that it is the duty of States to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems.

Who are Prisoners

“In our world prisons are still laboratories of torture, warehouses in which human commodities are sadistically kept and where spectrums of inmates range from driftwood juveniles to heroic dissenters”

“Convicts are not by mere reason of the conviction denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise possess.”[2].

The word ‘prisoner’ means any person who is kept under custody in jail or prison because he/she committed an act prohibited by law of the land. A prisoner also known as an inmate is anyone who, against their will, is deprived of liberty. This liberty can be deprived by forceful restrain or confinement.

The Indian socio-legal is based on non-violence, mutual respect and human dignity of the individual. By committing a crime, a person does not change from being human and still is endowed with all the aspects which demand him to be treated with human dignity and respect that a human being deserves.

Human rights are necessitated because of the reason of human life. Being in civilized society organized with law and a system as such, it is essential to ensure for every citizen a reasonably dignified life[3]. Even if the person is confined or imprisoned because of his wrong, he is entitled to their rights unaffected by the punishment for wrongs, simply because if a person under trial or a convict, his rights cannot be denuded.

“No one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment”[4]

Prisoners have basic legal rights that can’t be taken away from them. These include:

  • The right to food and water.
  • Protection from torture, violence and racial harassment.
  • Being able to get in touch with an attorney to defend himself.

Human Rights in India

Human rights are those rights that are fundamental to the human life. Human rights are rights to certain claims and freedoms for all human beings all over the world. These rights, besides being fundamental and universal in character, assumed international dimension. These rights ensure to make man free. Universalization of Rights without any distinction of any kind is a feature of human rights. These rights recognize the basic human needs and demands. Every country should ensure human rights to its citizens. The Human rights should find its place in the Constitution of every country.

Human rights in India is an issue complicated by the country’s large size, its tremendous diversity, its status as a developing country and a sovereign, secular, democratic republic. The Constitution of India provides for Fundamental rights, which include freedom of religion. Clauses also provide for freedom of speech, as well as separation of executive and judiciary and freedom of movement within the country and abroad. The country also has an independent judiciary and well as bodies to look into issues of human rights.

The 2016 report of Human Rights Watch[5] accepts the above-mentioned faculties but goes to state that India has “serious human rights concerns”. Civil society groups face harassment and government critics face intimidation and lawsuits. Free speech has come under attack both from the state and by interest groups.

The problem about human rights varies from society to society in India. The entitlement of civil, political, economic, and social right of individuals varies from country to country according to the laws governing these rights of the citizens of that country.
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It is the duty of every nation to create such laws and conditions that protect the basic Human rights of its citizens. India being a democratic country provides such rights to its citizens and allows them certain rights including the freedom of expression. These rights, which are called ‘Fundamental Rights’ form an important part of the Constitution of India.

These rights are fundamental in three different ways, first, these are basic human rights as human beings and secondly, our Constitution gives us these fundamental rights and guarantees because these rights are necessary for the citizens of our country to act properly and live in a democratic manner and thirdly, the procedure for the effective enforcement of these guaranteed Fundamental Rights has been mentioned in the constitution itself. Every citizen of India has the right to move to a court of law if he/she is denied these rights. The Constitution is there to safeguard her/his rights.

The Constitution guarantees to us six Fundamental Rights. The six Fundamental Rights as mentioned in our Constitution are, The Right to Equality[6], The Right to freedom[7], The Right against Exploitation[8], The Right to Freedom of Religion[9], The Cultural and Educational Rights[10] and The Right to Constitutional Remedies[11].

Human Rights of Prisoners in India: Current Scenario and Violation

The practice of torture in prison has been widespread and predominant in India since time immemorial. Unchallenged and unrestricted, it has become a ‘normal’ and ‘legitimate’ practice all over. In the name of investigating crimes, extracting confessions and punishing individuals by the law enforcement agencies, torture is inflicted not only upon the accused but also on bona fide petitioners, complainants or informants amounting to cruel, inhuman, barbaric and degrading treatment, grossly derogatory to the individual dignity of the human person. Torture is also inflicted on women in the form of custodial rape, molestation and other forms of sexual torture.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Joginder Kumar v. State of UP and Ors. said that the “the quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the methods it uses in the enforcement of criminal law. The horizon of human rights is expanding. At the same the time, the crime rate is also increasing. the court has been receiving complaints about violation of human rights because of indiscriminate arrests. A realistic approach should be made in this direction. The law of arrest is one of balancing individual rights, liberties and privileges, on one hand and individual duties obligations and responsibilities on the other; of weighing and balancing the rights, liberties and privileges of the single individual and those of individuals collectively; of simply deciding what is wanted and where to put the weight and the emphasis; of deciding which comes first ­– the criminal or society, the law violator or the law abider.”[12]

Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right of personal liberty and thereby prohibits any inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment to any person whether he is a national or foreigner. No person shall be deprived of his or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. This Article also protects people for being retrospectively punished for activities which were given a status of crime after they committed the act.[13]

The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India had occasion to deal with the rights of prisoners in the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration[14]. In that decision, this Court gave a very obvious answer to the question whether prisoners are persons and whether they are entitled to fundamental rights while in custody, although there may be a shrinkage in the fundamental rights. This is what this Court had to say in this regard:

“Are ‘prisoners’ persons? Yes, of course. To answer in the negative is to convict the nation and the Constitution of dehumanization and to repudiate the world legal order, which now recognizes rights of prisoners in the International Covenant on Prisoners’ Rights to which India has signed assent. In Batra case, the Hon’ble Court has rejected the hands-off doctrine and it has been ruled that fundamental rights do not flee the person as he enters the prison although they may suffer shrinkage necessitated by incarceration.

To handcuff is to hoop harshly and to punish humiliatingly. The minimum freedom of movement, under which a detainee is entitled to under Article 19[15], cannot be cut down by the application of handcuffs. Handcuffs must be the last resort as there are other ways for ensuring security.

Article 14[16]; gives the right to equality and equal protection also to the prisoners. If any excesses committed on a prisoner, by the police is considered as a violation of rights and it warrants the attention of the legislature and judiciary. The right to meet friends, relatives and lawyers are provided under article 14 and article 21. Such rights are pretty reasonable and non-arbitrary. Even prison regulations recognize the right of prisoners to have interview with a legal adviser necessary, in a reasonable manner. Right to free legal aid is also provided under this article 14 and 21[17].


The Indian Supreme Court has been active in responding to human right violations in Indian jails and has, in the process, recognized a number of rights of prisoners by interpreting Articles 21, 19, 22, 32, 37 and 39-A of the Constitution in a positive and humane way.

Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in the case of State of M.P. v Shyamsundar Trivedi[18] said that “Convicts are not by mere reason of the conviction denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise possess”

“Like you and me, prisoners are also human beings. Hence, all such rights except those that are taken away in the legitimate process of incarceration still remain with the prisoner. These include rights that are related to the protection of basic human dignity as well as those for the development of the prisoner into a better human being.”[19]

If a person commits any crime, it does not mean that by committing a crime, he/she ceases to be a human being and that he/she can be deprived of those aspects of life which constitute human dignity.

Disturbing conditions of the prison and violation of the basic human rights such as custodial deaths, physical violence/torture, police excess, degrading treatment, custodial rape, poor quality of food, lack f water supply, poor health system support, not producing the prisoners to the court, unjustified prolonged incarceration, forced labor and other problems observed by the apex court have led to judicial activism.[20] Overcrowded prisons, prolonged detention of under trial prisoners, unsatisfactory living condition and allegations of indifferent and even inhuman behavior by prison staff has repeatedly attracted the attention of critics over the years. Unfortunately, little has changed. There have been no worthwhile reforms affecting the basic issues of relevance to prison administration in India.

– (Justice A N Mulla Committee, 1980-83)

Isuues of concern regarding prisoners in India

The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Rama Murthy V state of Karnataka[21] specified 9 problems that the Indian Prisons are afflicted with. Those being: –

  • 80% prisoners are under trials
  • Delay in trial.
  • Even though bail is granted, prisoners are not released.
  • Lack or insufficient provision of medical aid to prisoners
  • Callous and insensitive attitude of jail authorities
  • Punishment carried out by jail authorities not coherent with punishment given by court.
  • Harsh mental and physical torture
  • Lack of proper legal aid
  • Corruption and other malpractices.

Solution to those problems. Worldwide and in India

A sentence of imprisonment constitutes only a deprivation of the basic right to liberty. It does not entail the restriction of other human rights, with the exception of those which are naturally restricted by the very fact of being in prison. Prison reforms are necessary to ensure that this principle is respected, the human rights of prisoners protected and their prospects for social reintegration increased, in compliance with relevant international standards and norms.

In order for a prison system to be managed in a fair and humane manner, national legislation, policies, and practices must be guided by the international standards developed to protect the human rights of prisoners. Prison torture in all forms is banned by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the 1949 Geneva Conventions (signed 1949), the American Convention on Human Rights (signed 1977), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (signed 1977), and the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (signed 1988).

Prison authorities have a responsibility to ensure that the supervision and treatment of prisoners is in line with the rule of law, with respect to individuals’ human rights, and that the period of imprisonment is used to prepare individuals for life outside the prison following release. But often national legislation and rules relating to the management of prisons are outdated and in need of reform

Human rights of prisoners can be enforced through various methods some of which are listed below,

Prison Welfare Schemes

Prison welfare schemes should be introduced in prisons all around the world so that some productive work is done by the prisoners so that they do not indulge in other nefarious activities while they are in jail and utilize their time in doing some erstwhile activity. The jail authorities help the prisoners or inmates, as referred by jail authorities, to conduct themselves in a better way which helps them lead a better life after their release. The atmosphere provided by the jail authorities compels the prisoners to work which diverts their mind from other mischievous things.

  • The prisoners can also participate in games and sports activities within the. For example, sports fest is organized during winter sports festivals, which are popularly known in the jail as “Tihar Olympics”[22]. Drug de-addiction centers can be opened up in every prison so that the drug abuse and drug addiction of the inmates can be curbed so that they can live a better life after prison.
  • Prisoners can be made to work in various factories so they understand the importance of work and inculcate these principles in their life outside prison too.
  • Recreational facilities can be given to the inmates such as vocational training, education both for adults and formal education, computer courses, games and competitions are held every now and then, also yoga and meditation, creative art therapy, painting etc. These recreational facilities help the inmates to change their behavior and become good citizens.
  • Job Placement should be provided to the prisoners so that they can earn their dignity back in the society which they lost when they were arrested.
  • The inmates can not only prepare eatable goods but also shirts, carpets, khadi clothes, etc. Other than this a few inmates can be allocated creative work like making furniture, showpieces like small temples, flower vases, braille books for the blind, wooden chairs, tables etc. These goods can not only be sold but can also be used by the inmates.
  • Such types of programs should not be optional and this should be strictly enforced by the jail authorities. Every inmate has to be involved in it. This motivates the inmates to live a better life after the end of their term and also these programs help in bringing out gems from people who had sunk into the deep coal mine of crime.


  • Equivalence of healthcare and the right to health is a principle that applies to all prisoners, who are entitled to receive the same quality of medical care that is available in the community. However, this right is rarely realized in prisons, where usually healthcare services are extremely inadequate. Prison health services are almost always severely under-funded and understaffed and sometimes non-existent.
  • The right to health includes not only the access to preventive, curative, reproductive, palliative and supportive health care but also the access to the underlying determinants of health, which include: safe drinking water and adequate sanitation; safe food; adequate nutrition and housing; safe health and dental services; healthy working and environmental conditions; health-related education and information and gender equality.
  • Improved prison management and prison conditions are fundamental to developing a sustainable health strategy in prisons. In addition, prison health is an integral part of public health, and improving prison health is crucial for the success of public health policies.
  • Thus, we should[23], in confluence with advocates and social activists working all across India aim at getting prisoners released, especially indigent ones, who are or have been undergoing trials and have been languishing in the prison for a long period of time. For this purpose, we can help the poor prisoners in economic and social ways by filing bail applications, filing for surety bonds and in cases where the indigent prisoners are unable to pay for the same, by providing for monetary assistance in collaboration with NGO initiatives all over India.

The prisoners who are in prison for long periods of time need constant care and support because they do not lose their humanity by committing a crime. They are endowed with and deserve an equivalent amount of human dignity and respect. The prisoners need to be visited regularly to ease them of their rigorous prison life and need to be talked to about the problems that they are facing. Also educational, rehabilitation and mental health counseling can be provided to the prisoners.

The prison is supposed to be for a reformatory purpose. However, the entire purpose fails when the prisoners are denied the very rights that are fundamental to their being a human being. Thus, we should take steps to ensure that their basic human rights are not infringed and that they live with dignity, because, after-all, they are humans too.


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[1] Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

[2]  Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer.

[3] Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

[4] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948


[6]   Article 14-18 of The Constitution of India,1950.

[7]   Article 19-22 of The Constitution of India, 1950.

[8]   Article 23-24 of The Constitution of India, 1950

[9] Article 25-28 of The Constitution of India, 1950

[10] Article 29-30 of The Constitution of India, 1950

[11] Article 32 of The Constitution of India, 1950

[12] (1994) 4 SCC 260

[13] Selvi v. State of Karnataka; (2010) 7 SCC 263

[14] (1980) 3 SCC 488 W.P. (C) No. 406

[15] The Constitution of India, 1950

[16] Ibid footnote 9

[17] The Constitution of India, 1950.

[18] (1994) 4 SCC 395

[19] Charles Shobraj vs. Superintendent, 1978

[20]  NHRC, 1993

[21] (1997) 2 SCC 642


[23] Human Rights Law Network



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