Prison reforms in India: A quick history

In our work, we figured that a concise history of prison reforms is hard to find. So, in this post I have pieced together the events that led to improving prison conditions and what came of those efforts. Plus, a schematic on criminal justice system. This should be useful for those who’d like to know the processes involved in commitment of a crime, reporting to the police, investigation, trial and finally conviction. This might also help in just understanding the news better, because in India a typical headline with “chargsheet filed…” is all too common.

Tracing the trajectory of reforms in any sector in India is essentially an exercise in tracking the various committees that Government of India might have setup at different times, particularly since independence in 1947. The state of affairs in the respective sector then is a cumulative effect of these committees over the decades. Prison management too has a similar course. For the present enquiry on prison reform I begin with a study by Dr. W. C. Reckless, an expert on correctional work in 1951, commissioned by Government of India. The study report titled “Jail Administration in India” recommended a revision of outdated jail manuals. This recommendation was supported by the Eighth Conference of the Inspector Generals of Prisons in 1952. A consequence of this was the All India Jail Manual Committee set up in 1957 to prepare a model prison manual. The report suggested wide ranging reforms – latest methods in jail administration, probation, after-care, juvenile and remand homes etc. The report also suggested amendments in the Prison Act 1894 to provide a legal base for correctional work. The committee drafted a Model Prison Manual in 1960. The current prison management is guided by this model prison manual.
The next major development in prison reforms comes after two decades from the development of prison manual. In 1980 a Committee on Jail Reform (Mulla Committee) was set up by Government of India which was to review laws, rules and regulations governing prisons and correctional facilities in India. Situation of women prisoners however had to wait till 1987 when Justice Krishna Iyer Committee was appointed to study the state of women prisoners. It suggested appointment of more women in police force to in view of their special role in tackling women and child offenders.
The concern about congestion of under-trial prisoners in jails features for the first time in Law Commission of India report number 78 published in 1979. But, it seeks solace in the fact that the “problem (is) not confined to India”. The report recommendations for amendment of bail procedure such that it provides for those undertrial prisoners who have difficulty in finding surety for their bail when granted by the court. It also recommended widening the list of bailable offenses. It further suggested that the undertrial prisoners must not be housed in the same prison as convicts. This “contamination” according to the commission leads to deleterious effect on undertrial prisoners.

The most recent exercise in addressing prison reform is the Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System in 2000 to consider measures for revamping the Criminal Justice System. This was a wider exercise which in its effect might lead to better prison system overall. It aimed at “simplifying judicial procedures and practices, bringing about synergy among the judiciary, the Prosecution and Police, making the system simpler, faster, cheaper and people-friendly, and restoring the confidence of the common man”. What is interesting is that this committee rightly identifies a procedural flaw in the trial process in the Criminal Justice System, which builds the need for reform. It states –

The Adversarial System lacks dynamism because it has no lofty ideal to inspire. It has not been entrusted with a positive duty to discover truth as in the Inquisitorial System. When the investigation is perfunctory or ineffective, Judges seldom take any initiative to remedy the situation. During the trial, the Judges do not bother if relevant evidence is not produced and plays a passive role as he has no duty to search for truth. As the prosecution has to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt, the system appears to be skewed in favour of the accused. It is therefore necessary to strengthen the Adversarial System by adopting with suitable modifications some of the good and useful features of the Inquisitorial System.

The committee’s recommendation on measures easing convictions, lowering the threshold of evidence and making confessions made to the police admissible as evidence is of relevance to prison reform. These measures are likely to impact prison overcrowding as well.

An overview of criminal process in India
An overview of criminal process in India

Criminal justice system in India is outlined in the schematic above.  This schematic is necessary to understand the locations in the system where delays, irregularities, deviation from the procedures and other divergences occur. For instance, the accumulating number of undertrials in the prisons is because at the stage of investigation the police of the state generally adopts an “active” approach. This means that the suspect is taken into police custody and then interrogation is carried out. This practice starts building up prison population which further compounds after the chargesheet is filed and a trial process initiated against the accused. At this stage a further clogging happens in the system because many of the accused either do not have wherewithal to arrange for their bail or simply do not have access to legal aid to file for a bail.

Until the filing of chargesheet (See schematic) the process is conducted by police department. They receive complaints and initiate investigations. If the police department is understaffed then it is likely that the investigations will suffer from a higher pendency.

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