IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis


5th October, 2023 Polity

Copyright infringement not intended

Picture Courtesy: www.thehindu.com

Context: The classification of deaths in Indian prisons as 'natural' or 'unnatural' is done by the Prison Statistics India report published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) annually. These classifications are made based on the circumstances and causes of death.

Classification of deaths in Indian prisons

  • Natural Deaths: These deaths are attributed to ageing and illnesses. They often include various diseases such as heart conditions, HIV, tuberculosis, cancer, and other health-related issues. The number of natural deaths tends to increase as the prison population grows.
  • Unnatural Deaths: This category encompasses a wider range of causes, including:
    • Suicide: Cases where inmates take their own lives using methods like hanging, poisoning, self-inflicted injury, drug overdose, or electrocution.
    • Death due to inmates: Deaths resulting from altercations or violence among prisoners.
    • Death due to assault by outside elements: Involves attacks by individuals or groups from outside the prison.
    • Death due to firing: Deaths caused by gunfire, often in cases involving security forces.
    • Death due to negligence or excesses: Deaths resulting from neglect, mistreatment, or excessive force by prison authorities.
    • Accidental deaths: These include deaths due to natural calamities like earthquakes, snakebites, drowning, accidental falls, burn injuries, and drug/alcohol consumption.

Picture Courtesy: The Hindu

Challenges associated with this classification system

  • Ambiguity: Experts and courts have criticized the classification system as unclear and vague. For instance, it can be challenging to determine whether a death resulted from illness-related neglect (natural death) or negligence by prison authorities (unnatural death).
  • Underreporting: Many prison deaths go unreported, which skews the statistics. Deaths may not be properly investigated, leading to a higher number of cases categorized as 'natural' deaths.
  • Pandemic-Related Classification: During the COVID-19 pandemic, deaths due to the virus were classified as 'natural' even though the prison conditions and overcrowding contributed to the spread of the disease. Some argue that these deaths should be considered 'unnatural' due to negligence.
  • Lack of Transparency: There is a need for greater transparency and accountability in documenting prison deaths. Clear and reliable documentation is crucial for understanding the true causes of deaths and addressing systemic issues.
  • Infrastructure and Staffing Issues: Overcrowding, lack of medical staff, and inadequate facilities in prisons contribute to health-related issues and deaths. The shortage of medical professionals and mental health experts in prisons is a significant concern.
  • Human Rights Concern: Human rights activists have raised concerns about the rights of prisoners, including access to mental health services, reading materials, and adequate living conditions.

Reasons for the high number of deaths in Indian prisons

Lack of Adequate Healthcare

  • Insufficient Medical Staff: Many prisons lack doctors, nurses, and medical staff, leading to inadequate medical care for prisoners. Minor health issues can escalate into life-threatening problems without prompt attention.
  • Shortage of Medicines and Equipment: Limited availability of essential medicines and medical equipment hampers proper treatment. Chronic conditions, injuries, or illnesses are not adequately managed, increasing the risk of fatalities.
  • Delays in Referrals and Transportation: Even when serious health concerns are identified, delays in referrals to outside hospitals and a lack of timely transportation (ambulances or escorts) can lead to worsening conditions or even death before medical aid is received.

Overcrowding and Poor Sanitation

  • Congestion and Lack of Ventilation: Overcrowded prisons mean cramped living conditions with insufficient ventilation. Poor air circulation can lead to the rapid spread of airborne diseases, posing significant health risks to inmates.
  • Hygiene Issues: Overcrowding often leads to inadequate sanitation facilities. Lack of clean water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities increases the likelihood of infectious diseases, creating an unhealthy environment for prisoners.
  • Psychological Impact: Overcrowding induces stress, anxiety, and aggression among inmates. Mental health deteriorates in such environments, making prisoners more susceptible to illnesses and overall health decline.

Violence and Torture

  • Abuse by Prison Staff: Physical and mental abuse by prison staff can result from power struggles, disciplinary actions, or personal biases. In extreme cases, this abuse can lead to severe injuries or fatalities.
  • Inmate Violence: In an overcrowded, stressful environment, conflicts between inmates often escalate into violence. Extortion, gang-related activities, or personal disputes can lead to fatal altercations among prisoners.

Lack of Mental Health Support

  • Prevalence of Mental Health Issues: Imprisonment, isolation from society, and the guilt associated with crimes can lead to various mental health problems among prisoners, including depression and anxiety.
  • Inadequate Mental Health Resources: Prisons often lack mental health professionals, counselling services, and support programs. Inmates do not receive the necessary psychological help, making it difficult for them to cope with their emotions, potentially leading to self-harm or suicide.

Lack of Legal Aid and Fair Trial

  • Prolonged Incarceration: Undertrials, often from marginalized communities, can spend years in jail without being convicted. Prolonged detention without a fair trial or legal representation increases their vulnerability within the prison system.
  • Coercion and Discrimination: Underprivileged inmates might face coercion by law enforcement to confess or plead guilty. Discrimination based on caste, religion, or gender can lead to biased treatment within the legal system, affecting the fairness of trials.

Deaths in Indian prisons have a negative impact on various aspects

Human Rights and Dignity of Prisoners

Violation of Right to Life: Deaths in prisons violate the fundamental right to life guaranteed by the Indian Constitution (Article 21) and international human rights standards.

Dignity and Humanity: Inadequate conditions, lack of healthcare, and violence within prisons strip away the dignity and humanity of prisoners, exacerbating their suffering.

Rule of Law and Justice System

Undermining the Rule of Law: Deaths erode public confidence in the ability of the state to uphold the rule of law, implying a failure in the justice system to protect its citizens.

Credibility of Justice System: High mortality rates raise questions about the fairness of trials, adequacy of legal representation, and the effectiveness of the justice system in ensuring due process.

Social Harmony and Peace

Resentment and Anger: Families and communities of deceased prisoners often harbour resentment and anger, feeling that justice was denied, leading to social unrest.

Communal and Caste Tensions: If there’s a perception of bias or discrimination in these deaths, it can exacerbate existing communal or caste tensions, potentially leading to violence or social discord.

Civil Unrest: Deaths can trigger protests and civil unrest among human rights groups and activists, further straining social harmony.

Family and Community Impact

Emotional Toll: Families undergo immense emotional trauma, dealing with grief and often financial hardship due to the loss of a family member, especially if the deceased was a breadwinner.

Loss of Trust: Communities may lose trust in law enforcement agencies and the judicial system, leading to a breakdown in the relationship between citizens and the state.

Psychological Impact on Inmates

Trauma Among Prisoners: Inmates who witness deaths, especially due to violence or neglect, can suffer severe psychological trauma, affecting their mental health and potential for rehabilitation.

Culture of Fear: Frequent deaths create a culture of fear within prisons, making it difficult for prisoners to focus on rehabilitation and personal growth.

Impact on Rehabilitation

Shift from Rehabilitation to Survival: Prisons should ideally focus on rehabilitating offenders. However, in an environment marked by frequent deaths, the focus often shifts to survival, impeding any meaningful rehabilitation efforts.

Limited Access to Programs: High mortality rates can limit prisoners' access to educational, vocational, or therapeutic programs that are vital for their successful reintegration into society.

Effect on Prison Staff

Stress and Burnout: Staff dealing with frequent deaths may experience stress and burnout due to emotional strain, negatively impacting their performance and overall morale.

Decreased Staff Efficiency: Emotional exhaustion can lead to decreased efficiency among prison staff, affecting the overall management of prisons.

International Reputation and Financial Costs

International Criticism: Excessive deaths in prisons can lead to criticism from international human rights organizations, damaging the country’s reputation on the global stage.

Financial Burden: Legal proceedings, investigations, compensations, and potential reforms to prevent future deaths impose a financial burden on the state, diverting resources from other essential public services.

Steps taken to address the issue of deaths in Indian prisons

Legislative Measures

  • Model Prison Manual (2016): The Model Prison Manual outlines inmates' rights to healthcare, necessitating investments in healthcare facilities within prisons. It mandates the establishment of mental health units and the training of officers to provide basic and emergency care. Suicide prevention programs have been formulated to address instances of self-harm.
  • Mental Healthcare Act (2017): This Act ensures that prisoners have access to mental healthcare services, emphasizing the importance of mental health units within prisons and appropriate treatment for inmates with mental illnesses.

Judicial Initiatives

  • Supreme Court Committee on Prison Reforms: Constituted in 2018 and headed by Justice Amitava Roy, this committee has submitted multiple reports and recommendations. It has addressed critical issues such as prison overcrowding, healthcare, legal aid, the rights of women and children in prisons, and measures like parole and furlough.
  • Landmark Judgments: The Supreme Court has delivered several landmark judgments and directions on prison reforms. Cases such as D.K. Basu v State of West Bengal (1997), Sunil Batra v Delhi Administration (1978), and Rama Murthy v State of Karnataka (1997) have set important precedents. These rulings have emphasized the protection of prisoners' rights, prevention of custodial violence, and improvement of prison conditions.

Role of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)

  • Monitoring Custodial Deaths: The NHRC plays a proactive role in monitoring and investigating cases of custodial deaths. It ensures that proper guidelines and recommendations are issued to prevent such incidents.
  • Prison Inspections: NHRC conducts regular inspections of prisons to assess conditions and suggest necessary reforms.
  • Awareness Programs: The NHRC organizes workshops and seminars on prison reforms, creating awareness about prisoners' rights and the need for humane treatment within the prison system.

Challenges and gaps in addressing the issue of deaths in Indian prisons

Lack of Implementation and Compliance

  • Political Will and Administrative Capacity: The implementation of laws and reforms often faces obstacles due to a lack of political will and administrative capacity within state governments and prison authorities. Reforms require sustained effort, resources, and commitment, which are sometimes lacking.
  • Financial Resources: Adequate funding is essential for improving prison infrastructure, providing healthcare, and ensuring staff training. Limited financial resources can hinder the effective execution of reforms.
  • Accountability: Lack of accountability mechanisms means that violations of guidelines and recommendations often go unchecked, leading to continued issues within the prison system.

Lack of Data and Transparency

  • Inadequate Recording and Reporting: There is a lack of uniformity and reliability in recording and reporting prison deaths across the country. Incomplete or inaccurate data makes it difficult to assess the scale of the problem accurately.
  • Limited Public Access: Lack of transparency means that the public often does not have access to vital information regarding prison deaths, making it challenging to hold authorities accountable.

Lack of Awareness and Sensitization

  • Training for Prison Staff: Many prison officials lack adequate training in areas such as human rights, medical ethics, mental health, and legal aid. This knowledge gap can lead to neglect or abuse of prisoners’ rights.
  • Inmate Awareness: Prisoners often lack awareness about their rights, available healthcare, rehabilitation programs, and legal aid. This lack of information hampers their ability to seek help or advocate for themselves effectively.

Lack of Coordination and Cooperation

  • Inter-Stakeholder Collaboration: There is a need for better coordination and collaboration among various stakeholders, including central and state governments, judiciary, NHRC, civil society organizations, media, and academia. Lack of communication and cooperation hinders holistic and effective solutions.
  • Dialogue and Advocacy: Initiatives like awareness campaigns and advocacy efforts involving multiple stakeholders are essential. The absence of such efforts means that key issues related to prison deaths are not highlighted sufficiently.

Overcrowding and Infrastructure Issues

  • Overcrowded Prisons: Overcrowding exacerbates existing problems. It strains resources, leads to inadequate healthcare, and heightens tension among inmates, increasing the likelihood of conflicts and violence.
  • Infrastructure Challenges: Outdated or poorly maintained prison facilities pose a significant challenge. Lack of proper infrastructure affects the overall living conditions of inmates, impacting their physical and mental well-being.

Way forward to improve the conditions of inmates

Reforming the Criminal Justice System

  • Reducing Overcrowding: Implement alternatives to incarceration such as bail, probation, and community service for minor offences or undertrials. Expediting pending cases and ensuring speedy trials reduce the number of prolonged detentions.
  • Enhancing Legal Aid: Improve the quality and availability of legal aid to ensure that prisoners have access to legal representation. This includes providing legal assistance at various stages of the judicial process.
  • Fair Trial and Due Process: Guarantee fair trial and due process rights, ensuring that prisoners are treated as per the law. This involves proper legal representation, protection against self-incrimination, and fair treatment in courts.
  • Restorative Justice: Explore restorative justice practices that focus on repairing the harm caused by crime, involving all stakeholders in finding a solution that promotes rehabilitation and reintegration.

Improving Healthcare Facilities

  • Increased Budget Allocation: Allocate sufficient funds for prison healthcare, ensuring that there's an adequate budget for medical services, staff salaries, and essential medications.
  • Upgrading Infrastructure: Modernize prison healthcare infrastructure, including facilities and medical equipment, to meet the basic healthcare needs of inmates.
  • Qualified Medical Staff: Recruit and retain qualified medical staff within prisons. Training programs can also enhance the skills of existing medical personnel.
  • Mental Health Services: Establish mental health units within prisons, providing counselling, therapy, and psychiatric services for inmates suffering from mental health issues.
  • Preventive Healthcare: Implement preventive healthcare measures, including regular health check-ups, vaccinations, and awareness programs to prevent communicable diseases.

Ensuring Safety and Security

  • Disciplinary Measures: Enforce strict disciplinary action against prison staff or inmates involved in violence or abuse. This includes appropriate legal consequences for the perpetrators.
  • Surveillance: Install CCTV cameras and other surveillance devices to monitor activities within prisons. Regularly review footage to identify potential issues and take preventive measures.
  • Grievance Redressal: Establish effective grievance redressal mechanisms allowing prisoners to report abuse or violence without fear of retaliation.
  • Investigations and Compensation: Ensure judicial or magisterial inquiries into custodial deaths. Provide compensation or relief to victims or their families to address their grievances and promote accountability.

Promoting Rehabilitation and Reintegration

  • Education and Skill Development: Provide educational opportunities, vocational training, and skill development programs to inmates. These initiatives enhance their employability upon release.
  • Family and Social Contact: Facilitate regular contact with family and friends, promoting emotional support and a sense of belonging.
  • Social Welfare Benefits: Ensure that prisoners have access to social welfare benefits, including pensions and subsidies, to support their families during their incarceration.
  • Parole, Furlough, and Premature Release: Implement fair parole and furlough policies, allowing prisoners to reintegrate into society gradually. Evaluate prisoners for premature release based on their behaviour and rehabilitation progress.
  • Employment Support: Provide support for employment or livelihood opportunities post-release. Collaboration with NGOs and private enterprises can create pathways for ex-prisoners to secure jobs.

Strengthening Oversight and Accountability

  • Implementing Reforms: Ensure strict implementation and compliance with existing laws, policies, guidelines, and recommendations on prison reforms. Hold authorities accountable for any lapses.
  • Accurate Data Collection: Establish a uniform system for recording, reporting, and investigating prison deaths. Accurate data is essential for understanding the problem and implementing targeted solutions.
  • Independent Inspection: Allow independent inspection and monitoring by institutions like NHRC or civil society groups. Transparent prison management builds public trust and ensures accountability.
  • Regular Audits and Evaluations: Conduct regular internal and external audits to assess prison conditions and evaluate the effectiveness of implemented reforms.
  • Public Awareness and Participation: Create public awareness about prison conditions and involve the community in rehabilitation efforts. Public support can lead to a more humane and accountable prison system.


  • Deaths in Indian prisons are a serious human rights violation that needs urgent attention and action from all stakeholders. By adopting a comprehensive and holistic approach, India can prevent deaths in prisons and ensure the dignity and well-being of its inmates.

Must Read Articles:

MODEL PRISONS ACT: https://www.iasgyan.in/daily-current-affairs/model-prisons-act

CUSTODIAL DEATH: https://www.iasgyan.in/daily-current-affairs/custodial-death-27

LAW ON POLICE CUSTODY: https://www.iasgyan.in/daily-current-affairs/law-on-police-custody


Q. What are the multifaceted challenges contributing to the high number of deaths in Indian prisons? How do factors like inadequate healthcare, overcrowding, violence, lack of mental health support, and deficiencies in the legal system collectively impact the lives of prisoners, and what are the broader societal implications of these challenges?