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Erosion of Humanitarian Rights of Prisoners

India on 5th July 2020[1] had become the third country with the largest number of COVID-19 cases worldwide. In these unprecedented crises, to practice the art of social distancing and to maintain the hygienic conditions had become a prerequisite to contain the virus.

The data released by the National Crime Record Bureau[2] in 2018 depicts that the Indian prisons had an occupancy rate of 117.6% with states like Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra with massive 176.5% and 148.9% occupancy rate respectively. The Supreme Court[3] acknowledging the present crisis had directed the states to take steps to decongest the prisons. However, the release of prisoners had failed to cure the ills present in the Indian prison system.

According to the data compiled by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative[4], there is a release of more than 66,000 prisoners but it failed to recognize the regular influx of new prisoners. The daily new admission of inmates and poor hygienic conditions have exposed the fractured Indian prison system, flouting the �human rights of prisoners� amid the pandemic.

International human rights law has time and again emphasized about the protection of the human rights of prisoners. Under Article 12 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[5], the State is required to, �recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health' and takes measures for the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.

Moreover, under the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) or Nelson Mandela Rules (Rule 24)[6], the State is entailed to provide health-care services for evaluating, promoting, protecting and improving the physical and mental health of prisoners.

India being the signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[7] (ICCPR) is also obliged to take action to prevent the outbreak of the contagious virus in prisons. This was reiterated in the concluding observation of the Human Rights Committee[8] which recognizes the threat to the �health� and �life� of the detainees as the violation of Article 6 (right to life) and Article 9 (right to liberty) of ICCPR.

Furthermore, the Indian Supreme Court in the case of Sunil Batra vs. Delhi Administration[9] has observed that the:
convicts are not by mere reason of the conviction denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise possess.

Article 21 of the Indian constitution[10] is one such fundamental right which guarantees, �right to health� and prohibits �inhuman�, �cruel�, �degrading treatment� towards any person.

The apex court further, in the case of Shri Rama Murthy vs State of Karnataka[11] had highlighted the deplorable conditions of prisons and stressed upon the reformation of prisons in India.

The Prisons Act, 1894[12], under section 7 empowers the State to take measures to provide temporary shelter for the safe custody of the prisoners during the outbreak of any diseases.

Further, the Model Prison Manual of 2016 (Chapters 2 and 7)[13] also allows the State to safeguard the physical and mental health of the inmate and allocate separate isolation cells to accommodate the person with any infectious or contagious diseases.

It is not hidden that the lethal coronavirus had thrown life out of gear and it found the Indian prison system ill-equipped to deal with it. Prisoners in India are kept behind the closed walls in an unhygienic condition. They lack proper lavatory and urinal facilities and are the breeding grounds for various contagious diseases.[14]

The prison staff is below the sanctioned strength and the custodial hospital lack adequate clinical staff to deal with the outbreak of any diseases.[15] The Supreme Court in the case of Parmanand Katara v Union of India[16] has held that the State has a responsibility to protect the life of the person of both innocent as well as the convict.

The authorities and all the duty holders are required to protect the lives of persons who are deprived of their liberty[17]. Taking into consideration the sharp rise in the number of cases across the country, authorities are required to embrace certain measures to safeguard the lives of the prisoners.
  1. Firstly, the World Health Organisation guidelines[18] which prescribe apposite sanitary environment and physical distancing measures in prisons must be strictly adhered to.

  2. Secondly, through various live sessions with the experts, all the inmates must be made aware of the impact, implications, and precautionary measures that are required to be taken to prevent the outbreak of the contagious virus.

  3. Thirdly, the vacancies present in the medical staff of prisons must be filled with stopgap assistance from the respective state health department.

  4. Lastly, the prisoners with the old age or with any chronic diseases should be provided with extra medical assistance and if required must be shifted to separate accommodation.
The Government of India in these unprecedented crises is required to take extraordinary measures to ensure that no one is left behind in these unprecedented times. It is not only the ethical responsibility of the State rather a Constitutional and International obligation. It is the ripe moment that the authorities rise to the occasion to provide hygienic surroundings, prevent over-crowding, and ensure proper legal representation to the prisoners.

  1. The Hindu Net Desk, Coronavirus| India overtakes Russia to become country with third highest confirm cases, available at
  2. Prison Statics India- 2018, Executive Summary, available at
  3. In RE: Contagion of COVID 19 virus in prisons, Suo motu writ petition (civil) no.1/2020.
  4. Commonwealth Human Right Initiative, State/UT Wise Prisons Response to COVID 19 Pandemic in India, available at
  5. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 12.
  6. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Rule 24.
  7. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 6 & 9.
  8. Concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee, Seventy-fifth session, available at
  9. Sunil Batra v Delhi Administration 1980 AIR 1579.
  10. Indian Constitution, Article 21.
  11. Shri Rama Murthy v State of Karnataka AIR 1997 SC 1739.
  12. The Prisons Act, 1894, Section 7.
  13. Model Prison Manuel 2016, Chapter 2 & 7.
  14. Human Right Watch, Prison Conditions in India, available at
  15. Supra n (2).
  16. Parmanand Katara v Union of India 1989 AIR 2039.
  17. United Nations Human Rights, State Practice on Implementation of the Right, available at
  18. World Health Organization, Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID- 19 in prisons and other places of detention, available at:

    Award Winning Article is Written By:�Mr.Yash Chhikara

    Awarded certificate of Excellence
    Authentication No: SP024560129728-1-920

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