Trending: Call for Papers Volume 4 | Issue 4: International Journal of Advanced Legal Research [ISSN: 2582-7340]



To grasp the life of prisoners, it’s essential to understand what a prison truly is. A prison is a facility that confines individuals either awaiting trial or serving sentences for crimes[1]. Modern prisons are integral to the criminal justice system, fulfilling roles in law enforcement, punishment, and rehabilitation.

Prisons hold individuals in pre-trial detention to ensure their presence at court and prevent further crimes. In some places, pre-trial detainees form a significant part of the prison population, highlighting the importance of this function in justice administration. Beyond this, prisons also serve as punishment facilities where convicted individuals serve sentences based on the severity of their crimes, past records, and judicial considerations. This system reflects society’s aim to hold individuals accountable while ensuring fair punishment.

Moreover, contemporary prisons emphasize rehabilitation to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety. They offer programs addressing the root causes of criminal behavior, including substance abuse, mental health issues, and lack of education or job skills. These initiatives provide inmates with tools for personal improvement, aligning with broader goals of crime prevention and community safety.

Life inside prison is multifaceted, shaped by the realities of confinement, loss of freedom, and rigid rules. Social dynamics within prisons are complex, with hierarchies and alliances forming as inmates seek support. Healthcare and mental health services are often insufficient, intensifying inmates’ physical and psychological struggles. Safety concerns are prevalent, with the threat of violence and exploitation adding to daily anxieties[2]. In essence, life in prison is governed by its own rules and norms, reflecting a challenging environment shaped by personal histories and social interactions. Understanding these experiences is crucial for insights into the criminal justice system and underscores the need for reform and rehabilitation for a fairer society.

Evolution of Prisons[3]and the Life of Prisoners

Ancient to 18th Century: In ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, imprisonment was rarely a punishment. Offenders typically faced physical penalties, slavery, or execution. Prisons primarily held those awaiting trial or punishment. During medieval Europe, prisons continued as holding facilities for those awaiting trial or punishment rather than places of prolonged detention. Conditions were appalling: overcrowded, unsanitary, with inadequate food, and rife with disease. Inmates had minimal rights and were often subjected to torture to extract confessions.

As the 18th century[i] progressed, societal attitudes toward punishment began to change. The decline in capital punishment led to the rise of prisons as institutions for punishment rather than just holding areas. This period marked the beginning of the modern prison system, where imprisonment became a primary means of punishing serious offenders. With the loss of the American colonies, Britain faced severe overcrowding, leading to the use of decommissioned ships, known as prison hulks[4], to house inmates under brutal conditions[ii].

19th Century: The 19th century saw significant shifts in how prisons and prisoners were managed. Victorian Britain’s[5] prisons were often old, damp, and overcrowded, housing a mix of men, women, children, and the mentally ill. The Auburn System[iii] from the United States, which emphasized silent labor and strict discipline, became influential. Inmates worked long hours in silence, engaged in activities like weaving or blacksmithing, and were confined alone at night to promote reflection.

This era also witnessed the emergence of the prison reform movement, advocating for improved living conditions and the introduction of rehabilitation programs. Reformers pushed for cleanliness, adequate food, and medical care. Educational and vocational programs began to be implemented to help inmates reintegrate into society. However, change was slow, and resistance to more humane treatments persisted, with many traditionalists believing that harsh punishment was necessary for deterrence.

20th Century: In the 20th century, prisons in both the United States and Britain continued to struggle with overcrowding and poor conditions. Factors such as rising crime rates, longer sentences, and the war on drugs exacerbated these issues, particularly in the U.S. Overcrowded facilities became breeding grounds for violence and disease, undermining efforts to promote rehabilitation.

Despite some improvements in living conditions and the implementation of progressive policies, many prisons still faced significant challenges. The focus on punitive measures, including solitary confinement and corporal punishment, often persisted, hindering the transition towards a rehabilitative model[6].

In response to ongoing concerns, the United Nations adopted the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners in 1955, which set guidelines emphasizing dignity, respect, and rehabilitation. However, the application of these rules varied widely across different countries, with many prisons still grappling with overcrowding and inadequate resources.

Overall, the evolution of prisons from temporary holding facilities to complex institutions reflects broader societal changes in attitudes toward crime and punishment. The life of prisoners has been shaped by these evolving practices, transitioning from mere survival in harsh conditions to a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. While significant strides have been made, the journey towards a fair and humane prison system continues.

Life Of Prisoners In The 21st Century

In the 21st century, the lives of prisoners are marked by deprivation, isolation, and violence. The global prison population has surged, with around 11 million people currently incarcerated—a 24% increase since 2000. This rise in imprisonment rates is seen in most countries worldwide.

Prisoners often face severe physical and mental health issues, exacerbated by pre-existing conditions like poverty and social marginalization. Despite the inclusive ethos of the Sustainable Development Goals, incarcerated individuals are frequently overlooked, missing critical support that could enhance broader societal progress.

Overcrowding is a major issue in many prisons, leading to poor living conditions and regimes. Incarceration significantly impacts prisoners’ long-term physical and mental well-being and complicates their reintegration into society post-release. The dual purpose of imprisonment—punishment and public safety—often brings collateral damage, affecting prisoners’ economic prospects, mental health, and likelihood of reoffending. Additionally, families and communities experience economic and social disruptions due to the imprisonment of their members.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated prison life, causing a decline in admissions in 2020 due to court delays. While efforts are made to mitigate the adverse effects of incarceration and improve the transition from prison to community life, the prison experience in the 21st century remains complex, with significant implications for both inmates and the broader criminal justice system.

Conditions Of Prison In India[iv]

India stands as a beacon of democracy, boasting free elections, a robust parliamentary system, a vibrant free press, an impartial judiciary, and a plethora of independent non-governmental organizations contributing to its lively civil society. However, recent scrutiny of imprisonment and police detention in India reveals troubling realities. In major cities and possibly beyond, individuals unfortunate enough to be arrested face a heightened risk of torture or maltreatment by law enforcement, even compared to countries with fewer civil liberties protections. Though expectations of extensive police abuse of detainees existed, the discoveries about prisons and jails were staggering.

It was anticipated that life inside prisons, meant for punishment, would be harsher than outside, given the challenges faced by most Indians. Surprisingly, imprisonment proved less severe than anticipated for some prisoners. While prisons are meant to be equalizers, colonial-era regulations in India and Pakistan explicitly counter this concept. Despite governmental and legal commitments to egalitarianism[7], a rigid class system pervades many prisons, granting special privileges to prisoners from upper or middle classes, regardless of their crimes or conduct. Even those involved in violent crimes against state institutions enjoy preferential treatment. Paradoxically, prisoners with politically motivated offenses constitute privileged elite, enjoying amenities like varied diets and access to reading material.

These contradictions are deeply puzzling. In a functioning democracy with a strong rule of law, extensive police lawlessness persists, raising questions about institutional accountability. Despite the presence of human rights advocates like former Supreme Court Justices Krishna Iyer and P.N. Bhagwati, the unequal treatment of law offenders persists in a country with professed egalitarian commitments. Furthermore, despite a vibrant civil society and robust awareness of civil liberties, a significant domestic organization capable of challenging abuses and promoting human rights nationwide is conspicuously absent. Understanding the treatment of those detained in police lock-ups and prisons in India sheds light on broader societal issues and deepens the understanding of global human rights promotion. These revelations underscore the imperative of addressing systemic challenges to uphold the principles of democracy and equality in India and beyond.

Living Conditions of Prisoners and Their Impact[v]

·       Brutal Living Conditions[8]

Incarcerated individuals, totaling nearly 2 million globally, often endure overcrowded and inadequate living conditions. They are frequently deprived of basic necessities like fresh air, nutritious food, natural light, proper healthcare, and meaningful social connections. The absence of public oversight contributes to abuse within prisons. Many prisoners face inhumane treatment and humiliating interactions, leading to significant trauma and difficulties reintegrating into society. Solitary confinement, affecting tens of thousands, is known to cause lasting psychological damage without improving prison safety.

·       Overcrowding

Overcrowding is a critical issue affecting prisons worldwide, with more than 118 countries operating above capacity, some more than double. This problem stems more from criminal justice policies than from rising crime rates. Overcrowding hampers the ability to meet basic needs and undermines rehabilitation programs. The high rates of pre-trial detention and incarceration for minor offenses exacerbate this issue. Overcrowded conditions lead to increased violence, self-harm, and suicide, and strain the mental health of inmates.

·       Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is used for discipline, protection, management of certain inmates, and during pre-trial investigations. It involves isolating prisoners for 22 to 24 hours a day with minimal interaction. This practice severely affects mental health, causing symptoms like anxiety, depression, paranoia, and in severe cases, psychosis and suicide. Prolonged solitary confinement can lead to irreversible personality changes and is often seen as a form of torture or ill-treatment.

·       Loss of Autonomy & Lack of Purpose

Prisoners lose autonomy over daily life, from wake-up times to meal schedules, fostering dependency and helplessness. This loss of control worsens mental health issues. Prisons offer few opportunities for meaningful engagement, leading to monotony and frustration. Addressing these challenges requires providing inmates with more control over their environment and access to educational and purposeful activities.

·       Corruption

Corruption among prison staff, including guards, is widespread. Inmates often bribe guards for contraband or privileges, partly due to the guards’ low salaries. This undermines the integrity of the prison system and compromises safety and trust. Adequate compensation and strict oversight are necessary to curb corrupt practices.

·       Unhealthy Living Conditions

Overcrowding leads to poor living conditions, such as inadequate sanitary facilities and insufficient healthcare, exemplified by the conditions in Tihar Central Jail in India. These conditions pose significant physical and psychological risks. Overcrowding increases disease transmission and tensions among inmates, while poor sanitary conditions further compromise health.

·       Staff Shortage and Inadequate Training

Prisons, especially in India, face staff shortages and inadequate training, affecting safety and operations. With a low staff-to-prisoner ratio, supervision is strained, leading to more violence and escapes. Insufficient training hampers staff’s ability to manage inmates effectively and maintain order. Enhancing staffing levels and providing comprehensive training are crucial for prison safety and management.

·       Unequal Treatment

Inmates often experience unequal treatment based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or gender. Minority and lower socioeconomic status inmates typically face harsher conditions and fewer opportunities. Women inmates encounter unique challenges, including limited reproductive healthcare and higher rates of sexual violence. Addressing these disparities requires systemic reforms to ensure fair and equal treatment for all prisoners.

·       Poor Budget for Health and Care

In India, the budget for prison health and care is significantly lower compared to other countries. Inmates receive inadequate funding for food, medical care, and vocational programs. This disparity highlights the need for increased investment in prison health and welfare to improve conditions and support rehabilitation.

·       Insufficient Legal Aid

Legal aid in India is often unavailable to detainees before trial, leaving many without representation during critical stages. The quality of legal aid is also a concern, with many lawyers in the system being inefficient. Reforms are needed to ensure timely and effective legal representation for all detainees.

·       Abuse of Prisoners

Physical abuse by guards is common in prisons worldwide. Female inmates are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, especially in facilities with a higher ratio of male guards. In India, prisoners often face exploitation and abuse by convict officers. Addressing these issues requires stronger protections for prisoners’ rights and accountability for abusers.

·       Custodial Rape[9]

Custodial rape, especially of migrant women, is a severe issue in India. Many cases go unreported due to fear of retribution and social stigma. Victims often face further victimization and ostracism if they come forward. Systemic reforms are necessary to protect detainees’ rights and provide support for victims of custodial rape.

·       Custodial Torture and Deaths

Custodial torture and deaths, often involving severe physical abuse, are significant problems in India. Despite legal provisions, arbitrary detention and mistreatment by police persist. Many cases only come to light through media or human rights organizations. Systemic reforms are needed to hold perpetrators accountable and ensure humane treatment in custody.

Rights Of Prisoners In Prison

The Prisons Act of 1894, enacted during British rule in India, aimed to regulate prison management. However, it often failed to protect prisoners’ rights due to discriminatory practices, such as differing treatment between foreign and domestic convicts, revealing systemic biases under colonialism. Upon India’s independence, recognizing prisoners as humans with inherent rights became the basis for granting them certain protections in the constitution, signaling a commitment to rectify past injustices and uphold equality and dignity in the criminal justice system.

Post-independence, significant modifications were made to the prison system, reflecting the government’s dedication to enhancing conditions and respecting inmates’ rights.Although many developed nations lack legislated prisoner rights, the Indian judiciary has played a pivotal role in recognizing and safeguarding a broad range of prisoner rights, emphasizing human dignity even post-conviction.

Despite these advancements, the Prisons Act of 1894 remained largely unchanged, failing to adequately reflect contemporary standards or protect prisoner rights. While some states and union territories have introduced updated laws or regulations, progress has been limited. Efforts to improve prison conditions and uphold prisoner rights include addressing overcrowding, ensuring access to healthcare, education, vocational training, and exploring alternatives to incarceration. Recognizing prisoners’ humanity and ensuring their basic rights and dignity are crucial for a just and humane criminal justice system. Further updates to laws and policies, alongside a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration, are essential for fostering fairness and promoting the well-being of all individuals, including those in prison.


The evolution of prisons from ancient holding cells to modern institutions reveals a complex landscape marked by challenges such as overcrowding, inadequate living conditions, and systemic corruption. Despite intentions to balance punishment and rehabilitation, prisoners globally endure harsh realities that demand urgent reform.

In the 21st century, increased incarceration rates and poor prison conditions highlight the need for comprehensive changes in the criminal justice system. The experience in India, characterized by overcrowding, prolonged detentions, and insufficient legal protections, underscores the pressing need for updated policies and improved inmate treatment.

To address these issues, a collaborative effort is required. Governments, civil society, and international organizations must work to enforce fair treatment, ensure humane living conditions, and provide robust rehabilitation programs. Revising outdated laws, improving prison management, and securing adequate resources for health and welfare are critical steps.

Ultimately, recognizing the inherent dignity and rights of prisoners is essential. A humane prison system should focus on rehabilitation and reintegration, promoting public safety while respecting the fundamental rights of inmates. By fostering these principles, we can move towards a more just and effective criminal justice system.

[1]Meaning of prison

[2]A person confined to an institution such as a prison

[3]See generally, Prisons by Britannica

[4] Floating prisons used as temporary accommodation for prisoners from overcrowded jails.

[5]See generally, A Victorian Prison by The National Archives

[6]See generally, center for prison reform

[7] Doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.

[8]Living conditions in prison by Vera

[9] See generally, Research Roundup: Incarceration can cause lasting damage to mental health by prison policy initiative.

[i]Crime and punishment in Durham: life in prison by Durham University

[ii]Early prisons and imprisonment by U.K. Parliament

[iii]Auburn System by Adam J. McKee

[iv]Prison Conditions in India by Human Rights Watch

[v]Conditions of prisons in India by NextIAS

Written by: Aisha Adil– Student of Anjuman-I-Islam’s Barrister A.R. Antulay College of Law

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