Posted on: April 9, 2021 Posted by: admin Comments: 0

Author:  Debalina Roy, Student at Xavier Law School, Xavier University Bhubaneswar.


Article 21 of the Constitution of India guarantees the right to life and personal liberty to all Indian citizens as well as foreign nationals residing in India. However, one may wonder whether the rights enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution is available in a similar manner to prisoners or jail inmates, who have either committed misdemeanours or heinous crimes or transgressed the law by some means. The answer to this question is affirmative. Regardless of the nature of the offence, prisoners do possess the right to life and personal liberty till their last breath, like any other common citizen. Our society has a negative perception about prisoners and jails. People opine that prisoners must be punished stringently for their offences and do not deserve mercy. However, the law dictates that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and basic human decency, irrespective of their background, so do prisoners.

This research paper provides an affirmative answer to whether prisoners are entitled to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution with the help of various case laws. The author elucidates the concept of ‘right to life and personal liberty’ and explicates the scope of Article 21 in its widest form which includes ‘right to live with human dignity’ under the ambit of ‘right to life and personal liberty’ enshrined in Article 21. The author cites the relevant case laws and interpretation by the justices to expand the scope of the term ‘life’ from mere physical existence to mean all aspects and faculties through which life is enjoyed. The initiatives taken by the government and the judiciary, to ensure that the right to live with dignity and basic liberties of prisoners are safeguarded, have been enumerated.

The author has endeavoured to interpret and explain prisoner’s rights to life and personal liberty and enumerated case laws wherein these rights of the prisoners have been acknowledged by the judiciary. The Nelson Mandela Rules which lays down minimum standards for the management of prisons, recognizes prisoners’ right to live with dignity and emphasizes on the treatment of prisoners with dignity has been explained. The research paper explains the role of judiciary in prison reforms and ensuring prisoners’ rights. The author has viewed reformative justice as a medium to help prisoners lead a life of dignity.

The author has referred to various literary and online sources such as books, newspapers, articles, government resources, websites, Amazon Kindle, etc in the process of preparing this research paper.


One of the most brilliant and remarkable impacts of British Colonialism was the introduction of important principles of law such as Rule of Law, Equality before Law, etc. The Indian Constitution was framed drawing inspiration from these principles. Part III of the Indian Constitution, which encompasses Fundamental Rights was modelled based on the American Bill of Rights, which was inspired by the ‘Magna Carta’, i.e., the Great Royal Charter granted by King John in 1215 guaranteeing basic personal rights and liberties to all subjects. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which provides that ‘no person, irrespective of gender, religion, caste or creed shall be deprived of his Right to Life and Personal Liberty except according to the procedure establish by law’ is significantly based on the Magna Carta. Article 21 is regarded as the ‘sanctum sanctorum’ of the Indian Constitution. The objective of Article 21 is to ensure that an individual’s right to life and personality is not encroached upon. Albeit all citizens of India are entitled to avail right to life and personal liberty and right to live with dignity conferred by Article 21, there is a certain category of citizens in the society who do not enjoy these rights equally. Prisoners or jail inmates fall under such section and although prisoners are entitled to fundamental rights there are certain limitations with respect to their position to avail these rights. In this regard, Justice Krishna Aiyer while delivering the verdict in Charles Sobhraj v. The Superintendent, Central Jail, Tihar[1], opined that “Imprisonment does not imply farewell to fundamental rights, however, by a realistic re-appraisal, in case of prisoners, courts will refuse to recognize the full panoply of Part III of the Indian Constitution enjoyed by a free citizen”. It can be deduced that prisoners enjoy all fundamental rights except those which do not complement the terms of the punishment.


The ambit of Article 21 was expanded following the renowned case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[2] to include right to live with dignity under the purview of right to life and personal liberty. Thus, the right to life, which was earlier meant to express solely physical existence or physical survival was interpreted in a new dimension. Further, the landmark judgement in Francis Coralie Mullin v. Union Territory of Delhi[3] pronounced that right to life conferred by Article 21 is not restricted to mere animal existence and stands for something beyond just physical survival. The right to live is not confined to the protection of physical being or part of the body that sustains life but includes ‘the right to live with human dignity’ which encompasses the basic necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing, shelter and provision for reading, writing and expressing oneself in various forms, moving about freely and interacting with fellow human beings. Right to minimum wages, drinking water, shelter creches, medical aid and safety and most significantly right to be treated with basic human decency constitutes right to live with human dignity and decency.


In Kharak Singh v. State of U.P.[4]., the petitioner, Kharak Singh had been accused and later acquitted in a violent dacoity case which took place in 1941. Following his release, the police under the U.P. Police Regulations, opened a history-sheet for Kharak Singh and placed him under police surveillance. The police would pay him domiciliary visits at odd hours of the night for verifying whether he stayed at home or there was any risk of eluding. Kharak Singh therefore sought his right to constitutional remedies under Article 32 of the Constitution and filed a writ petition stating that these regulations violated his right to live with dignity under Article 21 and curtailed his personal liberties guaranteed by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. He also contended that it infringed on his right to privacy but back in 1962, when the judgement of this case was pronounced, Right to Privacy was not recognised as a fundamental right. The Supreme Court held that the domiciliary visits by the policemen infringed on the petitioner’s personal liberty and was violative of Article 21 since there was no law to justify it. Subsequently, it struck down these provisions of the U.P. Police Regulations as unconstitutional. The court stated that an unauthorized intrusion into an individual’s residence and inconvenience caused to him constituted violation of the personal liberty of the individual under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Thus, in Kharak Singh v. State of U.P., the Supreme Court held that the term ‘life’ in Article 21 does not just express physical restraint or confinement and explicated the meaning of violation of right to ‘life’ as deprivation of all those limits and faculties by which life is enjoyed.


In 2017, addressing the issue of the surge in unnatural custodial deaths and its effect on prison reforms in India, a Division Bench of the Honourable Supreme Court comprising Justice Madan Bhimarao Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta, stated that custodial death is a crime and monetary compensation granted to the next of kin of the deceased does not constitute as the appropriate relief. Moreover, such incidents indicate the apparent contempt of the system towards the life and liberty of prisoners. The apex court observed that the government must discern that inmates who meet an unnatural death in custody are victims of either a crime or of negligence or apathy. The bench further stated that for prison reforms to be effective and fruitful, the State needs to change the outlook and mentality and make efforts to emanate meaning to life and personal liberty of every prisoner. A genuine desire must be instilled to ensure that guarantee to a life of dignity is provided to the greatest extent viable in prisons, without which Article 21 which endeavours to provide right to life and liberty to every individual in India takes the form of a ‘dead letter’. It implies that if the prisoners are denied their right to life and personal liberty, then the purpose of Article 21 is rendered unrealized or incomplete.

With a view to provide the prisoners their right to live with dignity and guarantee their basic human rights and liberties, the apex court instructed the authorities to appoint counsellors for prisoners, especially the first-time offenders, and ensure availability of proper and adequate medical assistance to prisoners. The Court emphasized on the importance of treating prisoners with basic human decency and directed the Centre to extend the duration or frequency of meetings of the prisoners with their families and consider the possibility of using phones and video calling for communicating with their lawyers. The Court also instructed the government to conduct training and sensitisation programmes for police officials of all prisons on their functions, duties and responsibilities towards prisoners and to educate them about the rights and liberties of prisoners while instructing them to treat prisoners appropriately.


A prisoner is not denied his fundamental rights for the mere reason of his conviction. Upon conviction, as a convict is put in a jail or correctional home, he is deprived of certain rights such as right to move freely throughout the territory of India or the right to practise a profession of his choice, but he is unquestionably entitled to the precious right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and shall not be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.

  • Babu Singh v. State of U.P.[5]: The Supreme Court held that refusal to grant bail in a murder case without reasonable ground amounts to violation of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21. It said that Personal Liberty of an accused or a convict is fundamental and inalienable to him and he can be deprived of it only in accordance with procedure established by law.
  • Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar[6]: A group of undertrial prisoners, who had been in jail in the State of Bihar for several years awaiting trial, filed a writ of ‘habeas corpus’. It was discerned that the detainees had been in prison awaiting trial for more than the prescribed maximum term. The Supreme Court held that ‘right to speedy trial’ is a fundamental right implicit in the guarantee of life and personal liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Charles Sobhraj v. The Superintendent, Central Jail, Tihar[7]: The petitioner complained of being subjected to intentional discrimination and was later placed in solitary confinement. The Supreme Court construed the discrimination against the prisoner to be violative of Article 21. It was held that if by imposing solitary confinement, there is total deprivation of camaraderie amongst co-prisoners, it would offend Article 21 of the Constitution. The liberty to move, mingle, interact with co-prisoners if substantially curtailed, infringes on Article 21 unless it is backed by the law.
  • Attorney General of India v. Lachna Devi[8]: It was held in this case that the execution of death sentence by public hanging is barbaric and violative of Article 21. However heinous and fiendish the crime committed by the accused might have been, public hanging would be out of question.

In a path breaking verdict in Jasvir Singh v. State of Punjab[9], the court gave an affirmative response to the issue involving the question whether prisoners have a ‘right to have a conjugal life’ and ‘right to procreate’ within the jail premises. The petitioners in this case were a couple, convicted of kidnapping and murder of a 16-year-old for which the husband and wife were awarded a death sentence and life imprisonment respectively. The Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the State of Punjab to constitute a Jail Reforms Committee which would undertake prison reforms while including the provision of conjugal visits for the jail inmates. The Court opined that conjugal visits and procreation are an important aspect of right to live with dignity thereby rendering it a part of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.


In the view of the esteemed Nelson Mandela, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners[10], also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules as a gesture of respect to the venerable former South African President, Nelson Mandela, was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 17th November,2015. India, being a member of the UNGA has adopted and follows the Nelson Mandela Rules. With a view to ensure safe, secure, and humane custody of prisoners and to facilitate prison reforms, it laid down certain principles for the ethical and dignified treatment of prisoners. These Rules outlines the standards that must be applied to grant prisoners their right to live with dignity. It lays special emphasis to rehabilitation and social integration programmes for prisoners during their imprisonment and post-release services upon release. The Nelson Mandela Rules explicitly state that prisoners, specifically those who are under trial or un-convicted, do have the right to live with dignity.


In India, rights of prisoners are not codified but the judiciary has made great efforts to acknowledge and guarantee the prisoners their rights. Therefore, the rights endowed on prisoners such as right to free legal aid, right against handcuffing, right against custodial violence, right to food and water, right to live with dignity, right to fair trial, right to speedy trial, etc. are based on various precedents and judicial interpretations of Article 21. Lately, the judiciary has been witnessed to opt for a ‘reformative and rehabilitative’ approach of justice rather than ‘retributive’ method. Acknowledging and safeguarding prisoners’ rights, particularly, their right to live with dignity, is at the heart of restorative justice. Reformative justice is based on the school of thought that believes every person deserves a second chance and endeavours to develop good conduct in offenders during the course of their imprisonment. It is aimed at restoring offenders to law-abiding lives, changing their mindset and enabling them to live peacefully and respectfully in the society again.


An in-depth study of the Article 21 and its provision that confers upon every individual in India, the right to live with dignity has led me to deduce that prisoners are also entitled to ‘life and personal liberty’ like any other individual. Although an accused on being convicted, is deprived of certain rights and liberties so as to facilitate the terms of his imprisonment, a right as basic and inalienable as the right to life and personal liberty which is considered to be the heart and soul of the Indian Constitution is unimpeachably available to a convict. Our judiciary has time and again, upheld the right of prisoners to live a life with dignity and supported the cause of humane treatment of prisoners. A prisoner, just by the virtue of being a citizen of India is entitled to live a life with dignity and avail the provisions of Article 21. If their rights under Article 21 have been violated, they have the right to seek constitutional remedies under Article 32 in the Supreme Court and Article 226 in the High Court to restore their right to life and personal liberty. The government, the police or the jail authorities do not possess the authority to deprive prisoners of their right to live with dignity without a legal sanction. A prisoner ought to be treated as a human being entitled to all the cardinal human rights, human dignity and commiseration.


[1]  AIR 1978 SC 1514

[2] AIR 1978 SC 597

[3]  AIR 1981 SC 746

[4] AIR 1963 SC 1295: (1964) 1 SCR 332

[5] AIR 1978 SC 527

[6] AIR 1979 SC 1360, followed in Kadra Pahadiya v. State of Bihar, AIR 1982 SC 1167

[7] AIR 1978 SC 1514

[8] AIR 1986 SC 467

[9] 2014 SCC Online P&H 22479

[10] UNODC Infographic: “The Nelson Mandela Rules”

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