In a bid to overhaul the country’s penal system and inch towards a reformatory prison system, the Indian government has crafted the Model Prisons Act, 2023.
Finalised on May 12, 2023, the Model Prisons Act is a step towards revolutionising the prison model in India plagued for decades with issues ranging from overcrowding, unhygienic living conditions, declining mental health of inmates, and violence on part of prison authorities as well as the inmates. These issues can be traced back to the colonial-era Prisons Act of 1894, used as a disciplinary tool by the British government in India to ensure that citizens of the country remain subservient to the Empire.
Along with the Prisons Act, 1894, the Prisoners Act, 1900 and the Transfer of Prisoners Act, 1950 have also been reviewed and relevant provisions of these Acts have been assimilated in the Model Prisons Act, 2023. State governments and Union Territory administrations can beneﬁt from the Model Prisons Act, 2023 by adopting it in their jurisdictions, with modiﬁcations that they may deem necessary, and repeal the existing three Acts in their jurisdictions. We analyse the features of this act, what it means for the 1,319 prisons in India, and how prisons, especially the overcrowded ones, take a toll on states’ finances.
The Model Prisons Act 2023 can be observed as a rehabilitation and reformatory tool rather than a disciplinary one. It attempts to bring the prison system out of the colonial era and into modern times. From digitalisation, increased transparency and security, to the enhancement of productivity and quality of life of inmates, the Model Prisons Act aims to holistically overhaul the prison system in India.
As of December 31 2021, as many as 9,180 inmates were reported to be suffering from mental illnesses, accounting for nearly 1.7% of total inmates lodged in various jails in the country. Though the number of unnatural deaths in prisons has decreased by 2.1%, between 2020 and 2021, suicide was the single largest cause of death, followed by murder and accidental deaths. These alarming figures stem from the fact that a huge number of under-trials and convicts languish in prisons due to extended court dates, inhumane living conditions, and inaccessibility to recreational and productive activities.
Freeing the Prison System from the colonial Prison Act, 1894
The nearly 130-years-old Prison Act, 1894 represented the British government’s violent oppression of India, with torturous methods meant to discipline a prisoner, as well as instil fear in them so as to avoid further offences, or perhaps even a rebellion. The Act focused on keeping criminals in custody and enforcing discipline, instead of providing rehabilitation and reformation. It observed a rigid class system where certain categories of prisoners were allowed to buy foods of “good nutritive value”. Facilities for female inmates were dilapidated, if at all existent, which also increased the threat of sexual abuse against them. Torturous behaviour by the prison staff, inhumane living conditions, and discipline instead of rehabilitation made this colonial act a franchise of the British Empire’s methods to keep Indians subservient.
With a significant jump in under-trial cases in the last few years from 3.71 lakhs in 2020 to 4.27 lakhs in 2021, overcrowding and lack of basic facilities have plagued the prison system across the country. This has brought to light the worrisome effects of the colonial-era act and the need for a reformed act that lays greater emphasis on unburdening the system while ensuring law and order stay intact.
Yuvraaj Singh Rahal/ New Delhi
Contributing reports by Neha Rai and Shreya Iyer, Researchers at Polstart.
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.