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  • Writer's pictureRitik Agrawal


Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Author: Kashish Chauhan,

UPES Law College, Dehradun


This research work in on the topic “Historical evolution of Prison System in India”. This research work begins with first understanding what actually does prison mean. The main focus of this research paper is to look into the historical background of the prison system in India. A perspective on punishment that acknowledges the need for retribution and deterrence while placing more emphasis on educational and therapeutic goals. According to the study's definition, prison should be viewed as a setting where rehabilitation is prioritized above incarceration. Prisons used to be seen as locations of Captives, where criminals were kept for the sake of revenge and punishment. It was once thought that locking a criminal away in solitary confinement would surely be a positive effect on them, but this idea is slowly being phased out as authorities and specialists come to realize jails have their limits.

Presently, cells serve primarily as places of confinement, coercion, and discipline. The role of jails as rehab facilities has grown throughout time. The idea of a prison's role as a place of recovery has grown throughout time. Once upon a time, prisons had no purpose other than to house offenders until trial and sentence.

Secondary sources of information like internet sources along with books have been referred for the purpose of this research.

Keywords: Prisons, Punishment, Jail, History, Rehabilitation, India


"A civilization should not be evaluated by how it handles its highest residents but its lowest ones," said Nelson Mandela. "Crime is the product of a disturbed mind and prison must have the atmosphere of hospital for therapy and care." — Mahatma Gandhi, also cited for the Prison reforms. Offenders must be punished as a top priority in any civil society. It is common knowledge that prisons have always been around. Prison goes by a variety of names across the world, including correctional institutions, detention centers, prisons, remand centers, and others. The term "prisonization" is shorthand for a penal establishment and the institutionalization of criminals and those awaiting trial. Because it is inevitable to have the presence of crime and criminals in any community, prisons are vital to any nation. Serving prison term can be a kind of discipline since it can bring about the desired result.

Put simply, jails are not like any other locations. Of course, putting a convicted offender to jail is supposed to have a redemptive effect by making them a more law-abiding member of society. However, in fact, jail officials often resort to coercive measures in an attempt to transform convicts. As a result, prisoners only show improvement while they are incarcerated; upon their discharge, they are once again drawn to criminal activity. This is why there has been a recent push to focus more on inmates' needs, with the goal of helping them return to society as productive members of society. Reforms in the corrections system, including probation and parole, can help accomplish this goal.

This shift away from viewing prison primarily as a place of punishment to one of correction and betterment is indicative of the increased focus on inmate rehabilitative programming in modern correctional institutions. This may be attained by making jails a more comfortable place for the convicts to spend their time. Inmates need access to trainings on education, recreation and vocation and provided opportunities in addition to a focus on societal and ethical ideals to aid in their reintegration into community upon receiving their freedom. After their release, they'll have options on how to support themselves financially thanks to this.

It wasn't the movements by the people of the society that led to the various reforms in the prison system. But it was the way politicians were treated during their imprisonment periods, that led to such reforms.


Donald Taft said that prisons were designed to isolate inmates from society in a way that was both physically and psychologically harmful. Inmates in a prison are subjected to draconian rules, given only the barest essentials, and live-in constant fear of being found out. Prison life implies, despite their choice and in the face of their own independent will, that convicts will be subject to a specific amount of freedom constraints.

In its earliest usage, "prison" referred to a jail or penitentiary. A prison is described as "a location adequately planned and fitted for admission of prisoners who by the process of law are sent to it for safekeeping while waiting for trial or for punishment." A prison or jail is a place where a person is held against their will and where they are deprived of certain rights by the government as a type of punishment. Thus, the original concept of a jail was as a location to hold criminals before their trial, verdict, and perhaps death.

Prisons, as defined by Section 3 of the Prisons Act, 1894, are "any jail or place used indefinitely or for the time being ordered generally or specially by the national government for the prisoner's detention, and involves all land and structures for such purposes," with the exception of facilities solely used to house prisoners under the captivity of law enforcement.


In general, the evolution of prisons can be broken down into three distinct eras. Prior to the middle of the 16th century, prisons mostly consisted of dungeons or confinement cells in safe portions of fortresses or cities where inmates were held while they awaited trial or the carrying out of their punishments. The second stage was trying out jail as a method of penalty for specific criminals, most of whom were juveniles. The third step was the widespread adoption of incarceration as a replacement for the death penalty.


The first Indian jails served merely as temporary holding cells for criminals awaiting trial, verdict, and, in some cases, death. Manu's teachings, as expounded upon by Yagnavalkya, Kautilya, and others, laid the groundwork for the social order of ancient India. Although incarceration was the primary common form of penalty in penology of ancient India, harsher forms of sanction such as being branded, hanged, mutilated or punished with death, were also common. Incarceration was a common kind of punishment, and the Hindu texts advocated for this form of corporal punishment by isolating the criminal from society. The major purpose of prison was to isolate criminals so they wouldn't pollute the rest of society. These cells were pitch black, wet and cold, with no electricity or heating provided by the United Nations. No adequate sanitary infrastructure was in place, and no human housing facilities were provided.[i]

In the past, the most common penalties included a monetary fine, time in prison, exile, a mutilation order, or even the death penalty. Most people who were sentenced to a life of servitude in prison were fined until their debt was paid.[ii] If u kill a Brahmin, the penalty was one thousand cows, that of a Kashtriya was five hundred, that of a Vaishya was one hundred, and that of a Sudra or woman of any caste was one cow. Even though there is scant detail about prison life in Indian law, historical accounts paint a clear picture once the relevant data is analyzed. Some Smiriti authors discussed their experiences in prison. According to Yajnavalkya, a person who played a key role in the escape of an inmate was executed. Vishnu proposed that anyone who causes harm to a man's eyes should be imprisoned.

Kautilya outlined the prison's physical location and the conditions under which inmates may be released. In the prison, the guards went by the names Bhandanagaradhyaksa and Karka. The first was the head administrator, while the second was one of his subordinates. Sannidhata oversaw operations at the prison. Ashokan writings, particularly the fifth Rock Edict, include pointers to jailed individuals. Furthermore, Kautilya explains the responsibilities of the jailor, who is responsible for monitoring the inmates' activities and ensuring the jail cell runs smoothly.

Prof. Ramachandra Dikhitar in his book entitled “Mauryan Polity, has suggested that Ashoka was familiar with the Artha shastra, for Ashoka speaks of as much as twenty five jail deliveries effected by him in the course of 26 years since his appointment to the throne

The post-Ashokan era is shown in the jatakas via the lens of captives being freed during times of conflict. As far as can be gathered from Harsha Charitha, the conditions in which the prisoners were held were appalling. Hiuen Tsang claims that inmates are typically subjected to cruel condition. Inmates were freed in celebration of the crowning of the new monarch.

From what has been said previously, it is clear that incarceration wasn't very common in ancient India, and that a prison structure as we know it had no existence.


Medieval India's legal system was very similar to Ancient India's, and the country's Muslim rulers rarely, if ever, interfered with its day-to-day operations. During the Mughal era, the Quran continued to serve as a primary source for justice and to shape the nature of the legal system. Offenses were classified as either.[iii]

Offenses were classified as either

a. against God,

b. towards the State, or

c. towards individual citizens.

A total of four types of punishments were available for these infractions:

a. Hadd

b. Tazir,

c. Quisas

d. Tasir.

The penalty of common offenders did not include incarceration. Its sole purpose was to detain people. In several fortresses around the nation, prisoners awaited trial and execution. There were were three "Noble prisons or Castles" in Mughal India. Three separate battles were fought: one at Gwalior, another in Ranthambore, and the third at Rohtas. The only good thing about being an inmate was receiving an order for release on a holiday.

In 1638 A.D., during festivities commemorating the health restoration of the beloved Princes Begum Sahib, Shahajahan issued an edict releasing all captives. Offenders from all around were transferred to the Bhandhikahanas or Adab - Khanas, a section of the palaces set aside specifically for inmates.

Even during the Maratha era, it wasn't standard practice to use jail time as a sanction for wrongdoing. As for penalties, the death penalty, mutilation, and monetary fines were the most popular. The same type of penance used in the ancient and Mughal eras was used throughout the Maratha era. This brief overview of the pre-British jail system covers its essential aspects.

a. There were no jails, at least not in the way that we think of them now.

b. There wasn't any discussion of how jails are managed from the inside.

c. There was no such thing as a specialized jail system, and the courtroom did not act as prisoner intake facilities.

d. There weren't any guidelines for jail upkeep


The jail institution in our nation, in its current iteration, is a relic of the days when it was ruled by the British. It was an inventive construct of the rulers of the colonial times who were in charge of our indigenous penal system. The primary motivation behind it was to make incarceration "a dread to wrong doers." In spite of this, it was a significant step forward in the evolution of our penal system since it made it possible to do away with our outdated and cruel system of penalties and replace them with incarceration as the most common type of discipline for criminal offenses.[iv]

The Parliament of Britain, in 1784, allowed the East India Company to control India and over the years several efforts have been made to establish improvements in the governance of Law and Justice. There were 68 mixed prisons, 75 criminal jails, and 143 civil jails in operation during that time period. In point of fact, these prisons were an extension of Mughal control and were maintained by the staff of the East India Company as part of their attempts to develop their commerce and keep the tranquility. According to an insightful observation made by Dr. BK Bhattacharya, "the British believed solely in maintaining the inmates in captivity as inexpensively as feasible and with the most benefit to the Government." It is not surprising that the early British government developed its Policy of Prison with the sole intention of supporting its colonial interests. This was a logical course of action.

In the year 1835, it was brought to notice by Lord Macauly of the Legislative Council of India the disgraceful circumstances that existed within the Jails of India. He suggested the appointment of a review panel "for the intent of accumulating data as to the condition of Indian Jails and of gearing up an enhanced strategy of prison practice to recommend such restructuring than may create the setting (the jail at Alipore) a framework for other prisons." The Legislative Council of India accepted Lord Macauly's proposal The council decided to take Lord Macauly up on his suggestion and established a panel called "The Prison Discipline Committee," with the honorable H. Shakespeare serving as its president. Lord Macauly was one of the committee's participants. 1838 was the year when the findings of the Committee were published. The Investigating Committee was an important turning point in the evolution of the Indian correctional system. Prisons were given various care, the essence and character of the organization took an altered significance, yet it was punishing primarily.

The committee called upon the notice of the English authorities of India to a variety of failings in the management of Indian prisons for the very first time. It condemned the dishonesty of junior institution, the leniency of regulation and the practice of using criminals in additional mural employment or national highways.

It planned to employ all prisoners in some boring, tedious wear some and intriguing duty in which speedier respite might be gained by working more hours in a set period. The board purposefully denied all such rehabilitative forces as the teachings related to religion and morals, imparting education, or any scheme of incentives for exemplary behavior. The committee used the full force of its power on the behalf of increasing rigor of discipline, and it offered to involve all inmates in certain boring, repetitive task. As per this group, the objective of the jails was to render "the goal a spot of fear" by employing a cruel method that consisted of "extreme hardship, truly hard labor, seclusion, quiet and isolation."

In 1846, in response to the suggestions made by the committee, it was in Agra where the Central Prison was built. Following the establishment of this first Central Prison in India, further Central Prisons were built in the following cities: Bareilly in 1848, Allahabad in 1848, Lahore in 1852, Madras in 1857, Bombay in 1864, Alipore in 1864, Banaras and Fatehgarh in 1864, and Lucknow in 1867. Along with its endorsement of the philosophy of punishment in prison management, this was the constructive effort that was the spearhead of the movement toward jail reformation in this nation[v].

A prison inspector was originally recruited in 1844 in the North Western Province for a trial period of two years, which was subsequently prolonged; in 1850, the Government of India made the position regular and recommended that every province choose its own inspector general of jails. In 1862, civil surgeons were appointed to the position of district jail superintendent in the North Western Province.

Prisons Act was enacted by the Indian government in 1870. It stipulated the need for a Superintendent, a Medical Officer, a Jailor, and other subordinate personnel as deemed required by the local administration. The responsibilities of prison staff have been clearly laid forth in this statute. This law also provided for the segregation of inmates based on their classification as either men or women, juvenile or older, and criminal or civil.

The enquiry bodies, which were third and fourth in line, were established in 1877 and 1889, respectively. The Prison Act of 1894 was ultimately voted into law as a direct result of the suggestions made by the committees. By this measure, it seemed as though the prisons had made a significant amount of tangible development over this time span.

In 1919, the administration of the United Kingdom established a Joint Commission comprised of professionals to inquire into and make recommendations about all aspects of the administration of prisons. The panel suggested the creation of distinct facilities for the delivery of juveniles, similar to Borstal School. The accused had to be kept apart from those who had already been sentenced, and the adults who had been found guilty were to be divided into habitual and occasional offenders. The practice of transporting convicted criminals to the Andaman Islands was examined in depth in the report of the committee, which also included a recommendation that the procedure be discontinued. The use of isolated detention has been done away with. All of the detainees who were younger than 29 years old were supposed to be provided for by educational programs for adults, and there were supposed to be libraries in every single jail. Both the quantity and quality of the food served to inmates was to be increased, and each inmate was to be given two complete sets of clothing. The panel emphasized the need of reforming convicts as the final goal of incarceration and the requirement of rehab of inmates as a societal obligation.[vi]

Unfortunately, the jail reform campaign was dealt a devastating blow as a direct result of the Government of India Act of 1919, which resulted in the amendment of certain constitutional provisions. As a result of the Act, responsibility for the prison department was shifted from the Government of India to the respective Provincial Governments.

In the years leading up to independence, efforts to reform the penal system received considerable attention. Although the people who were governing the nation were prepared with a strategy for the country's economic growth, they were unable to ignore the need for prison reform because they had all spent a significant portion of their best years behind bars.

According to the Indian Constitution, the supervision of prisons is within the purview of the states. Jails at the Central, state or district level s make up the entirety of the institution that is overseen by the Inspector General of Jails. The management of jails and prisons in the various states has been standardized in a variety of ways. Those individuals who have been found guilty and sentenced to lengthy prison terms are the target population for the core jails.

According to the Indian Constitution, the supervision of prisons is within the purview of the states. Jails at the Central, state or district levels make up the entirety of the institution that is overseen by the Inspector General of Jails. The management of jails and prisons in the various states has been standardized in a variety of ways. Those individuals who have been found guilty and sentenced to lengthy prison terms are the target population for the core jails.


At long last, we have arrived at the conclusion that the judicial administration has accepted the responsibility of rehabilitating convicted criminals and reintegrating them into society. The optimal correctional facility would give inmates with appropriate opportunities for labor, vocational skills, and fundamental academic opportunities, in addition to appropriate health care and leisure opportunities. In India, jail reformation did not originate from a mass movement but rather were a necessary consequence of the terrible circumstances of torture that political prisoners were subjected to throughout their time behind bars. This was the case regardless of the reason for their incarceration.

It is hoped that the choices taken by the high court in the current context will contribute more to the reduction of a number of issues that are currently prevalent in India's correctional system. In the old days, the Indian legal system has been instrumental in the reform and advancement of the country's prison mechanism. As a result, it is possible to draw the conclusion that this is only the first move in what will be a lengthy road toward improved regulation and administration of the criminal justice system. Thus, the purpose of this research is to provide an understanding of the Prison Reforms by investigating the Prison Reformation as a whole. It is not enough to just alter the physical structures of prisons; what occurs within them also has to be modified, and the primary focus should be on ensuring that inmates' human rights are respected in addition to enhancing the quality of their living conditions.

REFERENCES [i] 9. A Mohanty and Narayan Hazare, ‘Indian Prison system’ p. 19 [ii] I J Singh, ’Indian prison’, p.19 [iii] Raju, L.P. "Historical Evolution of Prison System in India." World Wide Journals. N.P., 2022. Web. 28 Sept. 2022. <>. [iv] Mishra, Siddhant, and Snehil Raj. "HISTORICAL EVOLUTION OF THE PRISON SYSTEM IN INDIA." N.P., 2022. Web. 30 Sept. 2022. <>. [v] Bhargava, Rishabh. "A Critical Study of Prison Reforms in India." N.P, 2022. Web. 1 Oct. 2022. <>. [vi] Gupta, Sakshi. "System Of Prison, Its History and Types In India." NP., 2022. Web. 31 Sept. 2022. <>.

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