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India: The Penal System
Country Study > Chapter 10 > National Security > The Criminal Justice System > The Penal System


The constitution assigns the custody and correction of criminals to the states and territories. Day-to-day administration of prisoners rests on principles incorporated in the Prisons Act of 1894, the Prisoners Act of 1900, and the Transfer of Prisoners Act of 1950. An inspector general of prisons administers prison affairs in each state and territory.

By the prevailing standards of society, prison conditions are often adequate. Some prison administrators concede that the prevailing conditions of poverty in Indian society contribute to recidivism because a prison sentence guarantees minimal levels of food, clothing, and shelter. Despite this overall view, India's prisons are seriously overcrowded, prisoners are given better or worse treatment according to the nature of their crime and class status, sanitary conditions are poor, and punishments for misbehavior while incarcerated have been known to be particularly onerous.

Prison conditions vary from state to state. The more prosperous states have better facilities and attempt rehabilitation programs; the poorer ones can afford only the most bare and primitive accommodations. Women prisoners are mostly incarcerated in segregated areas of men's prisons. Conditions for holding prisoners also vary according to classification. India retains a system set up during the colonial period that mandates different treatment for different categories of prisoners. Under this system, foreigners, individuals held for political reasons, and prisoners of high caste and class are segregated from lower-class prisoners and given better treatment. This treatment includes larger or less-crowded cells, access to books and newspapers, and more and better food. Despite laws that mandate egalitarian treatment of Dalits.

The press and human rights groups periodically raise the subject of prison conditions, including problems of overcrowding, the plight of prisoners detained for long periods while awaiting trial, and the proper treatment of women and juvenile prisoners (children are often incarcerated with their parents). Reports have also surfaced alleging that torture, beatings, rape, sexual abuse, and unexplained suicides occur on many occasions in police stations and prisons. Because of a shortage of mental institutions, numerous "non-criminal lunatics" are imprisoned, often under conditions worse than those afforded criminals. The government concedes that problems exist, but insists that its attempts at prison reform have suffered from a paucity of resources.

Last Updated: September 1995

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for India was first published in 1995. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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