Rights of Prisoners in India

Rights of Prisoners in India: Comparative Study with Nations

This article on ‘Rights of Prisoners in India: Comparative Study with the Scandinavian Countries‘ was written by an intern at Legal Upanishad.


“Our prisons should be correctional houses, not cruel iron aching the soul.” -Justice VR Krishnaiyer

The rights of prisoners and prison reforms have been major areas of concern in India. The absence of a legal framework specifically aimed at safeguarding the rights of prisoners further fuels the mistreatment faced by the prisoners at the hands of the authorities. The judiciary has thus stepped up and taken into consideration the human rights violations faced by the prisoners due to the lack of an overarching authority and legislation to regulate the same. This article provides an overview of prisoners’ rights in India.

This article has primarily focused on the rights available to prisoners by virtue of the Constitution and furthermore the development of legal jurisprudence with respect to the same. A comparative study has been drawn with the US, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden in terms of the rights of prisoners. Much can be drawn from the reformative correctional service provided in these countries.

Rights of Prisoners in India

The Courts have been proactive and worked towards improving the living conditions of prisoners by taking into account the human rights violation rampant in the country. Article 21 of the Constitution, the right to life and personal liberty, is an alienable right available to every individual, including convicts, undertrial prisoners, and the like.

The judiciary has vehemently provided effective remedies in instances of human rights violations against prisoners. “Convicts are not, by mere reason of the conviction, denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise possess.”[1] The role of the judiciary has been highly monumental in incorporating and building upon legal jurisprudence concerning the rights of prisoners in the country.

In Maneka Gandhi v Union of India,[2] the Court was of the view that “the ambit of personal liberty protected by Art. 21 is wide and comprehensive. It embraces both substantive rights to personal liberty and the procedure provided for their deprivation.” The Court effectively expanded the ambit of Article 21 and considered the right to travel abroad as an integral part of ‘personal liberty, where personal liberty cannot be cut down in any manner whatsoever in the absence of fair legal procedure.

The Court has further propounded that “the rights enjoyed by prisoners under Articles 14, 19 and 21, though limited, are not static and will rise to human heights when challenging situations arise.”[3]

Comparative Analysis with the US, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway

Scandinavia: Sweden, Denmark, and Norway

The prison system in the Scandinavian nations is exemplary and considered to be one of the best in the world, considering that these nations appear to have the lowest crime rates and the lowest rates of recidivism in the world.[4] Denmark and Norway largely follow open prison systems. The correctional institutions in these countries are well-maintained with little to no human rights violations reported. The UN Committee against Torture had shown great appreciation towards Sweden’s implementation of human rights standards.[5]


Prisoners in Sweden are entitled to basic human rights. They are permitted to have visitors (friends, family, and relatives) during the visiting hours. They also have access to certain leisure activities such as games, exercise, sports, and outdoor activities. The institutions mandate occupational work for which a certain amount of money is earned. The prisoners are also granted healthcare facilities with a nurse stationed in the institutions. The prisoners are entitled to follow their faith and religion. The prisoners are further subjected to regular security checks and may be placed in solitary confinement or isolation in case of violence.[6]


In Denmark, shorter sentences are generally served in open prisons whereas a prisoner may be placed in a closed prison for a longer sentence. The prisons in Denmark are unique in the sense that they permit the prisoners to bring certain belongings with them such as their photographs, clothes, etc., this condition however differs from prison to prison. The prisoners have access to medical assistance, legal help, and social help. The prisoners also have a right to occupation for which they are entitled to get paid. The prisoners are also permitted to participate in legal political activities, including voting for parliamentary or local elections.[7]


In Norway, the correctional services observe the “principle of normality”, whereby the sole punishment given to offenders is the restriction of liberty. The offenders are placed in the lowest possible security regime with the aim of ensuring that life within the prisons resembles life outside to the maximum extent possible, with the exception being security threats. The prison staff in Norwegian prisons is unarmed. Except for the restriction on liberty, the prisoners in Norway have the same rights as any other Norwegian citizen. A prisoner in Norway may be subject to punitive detention if need be.[8]


Substantial evidence and reports on prison reforms have indicated nine major issues in prisons that require dire attention: overcrowding, delay in the trial, torture, and ill-treatment, neglect of health and hygiene, insubstantial food and inadequate clothing, prison vices, deficiency in communication, streamlining of jail visits, and management of open-air prisons.[9] Despite numerous guidelines, orders, and judgments passed by the Courts, there remains much scope for improvement in these areas.

Inspiration can be drawn from the reformative approach adopted by the correctional systems in the Scandinavian nations. Although open prisons are not a new concept in India, an increase in the number of such institutions across the country is bound to address certain areas of concern coupled with a stricter regime of weekly checks on the situation of inmates and prison facilities.

A state-wise authority can be set up specifically to look into the functioning of the prisons for the true realization of the objectives stemming from the various landmark judgments on prison reforms and for acting as a watchdog for compliance with the prison manuals.


The Courts have played a notable role in guarding and preserving the rights of prisoners, undertrials, and otherwise. By according a liberal and comprehensive meaning to the right to life and personal liberty, the Courts have effectively widened the ambit of Article 21 to preserve the rights of prisoners through judicial activism and positivism. The rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution are inalienable rights awarded to every citizen in the country including prisoners with certain restrictions imposed on account of their status as a “prisoner”.

The major issue faced is the lack of access to speedy trials, resulting in an alarmingly high number of undertrial prisoners crowding the prisons across the nation. Considering the magnitude at which the issue exists, a noticeable change is bound to occur after a considerable time.