The Impact of Mass Incarceration in the Society and The Criminal Justice System


The foremost and primary focus of the paper will be on conditions of prisons and imprisonment in India. And it will be preceded by the basic understanding of the topic and legal rights, provisions or bills if any related to the issue prevailing in India and the case laws to provide the clear applicability of the laws. The historical background of prison system in India and prison reforms will also be taken in the spotlight and thus the impact of mass incarceration in our society will be analyzed also, taking into account various aspects like health, poverty and other issues detrimental to the rights of prisoners. This will provide insight into the problem of under trial in India which accelerates the rate of mass incarceration. This paper will discuss the suggestions to curb the mass incarceration keeping in view the criminal justice system of the country.


mass incarceration, rights, imprisonment, overcrowding, prisoner


“Imprisonment is increasingly used as a strategy of deflection of the underlying social problems—racism, poverty, unemployment, lack of education, and so on.” ― Angela Y. Davis

India’s incarcerated population has risen over the past few years, leading to overcrowded jails that are having difficulties meeting the demands of the prisoners. And as a result, experts have pointed to the widespread imprisonment of prisoners, particularly those who are awaiting trial or under investigation. According to the human rights organisation Amnesty International, there are approximately far numerous individuals in India who have yet to face trial than in any other democratic nation in the world. As of 2017, India had the third-highest number of pre-trial inmates in Asia.  Reforms in the judicial system and criminal justice system are required in view of this situation.[1]

Mass incarceration has adverse effects which transcend far beyond the individual. This hinders their ability to function independently of the system. Prisoners have restricted access to the outside world and are cut off from their loved ones. Prisoners have limited recreational alternatives at high security prisons. All of these methods assimilate prisoners, which makes it even harder for them to settle back into society. In other words, such confinement and limitation dehumanises inmates. They fail to acquire the interpersonal, soft, or job-related skills necessary for success “on the outside”; in fact, as they adapt to their surroundings, they might be losing these qualities. This makes the issues worsen that might have led to their arrest in the primary instance. These include: lack of social and economic opportunity, lack of education, lack of human life etc.[2] 

Research Methodology

Throughout this research paper, a descriptive, statistical and analytical method has been followed. Descriptive study method is used to explore the facts and other details in respect of the research problem while the statistical findings and data of various reports of the government agencies is used to supplement the facts. The analytical method approach is used for the critical analysis of the past and present situation or the analysis of research findings from international perspective. Besides these methods of study, the research paper is based on both the primary and secondary data. Primary data concerns books and past and present cases. Secondary data includes various articles and journals from the formal authentic sites.

Literature Review

Firstly it is important to understand the meaning of mass incarceration and what exactly criminal justice system consists of:

Meaning of mass incarceration- The framework of racial and financial discrimination that has originated in, thrives off of, and is perpetuated by mass incarceration includes the police, the judicial system, detention, debt collection, and social control. The criminal legal system, the prison state, or the criminal state are some other names for this network. The phrase also describes the web of state people who have helped establish and maintain the status quo, plus the social factors that drive these actors to act in that way. This involves municipal police officers, prosecutors, and mayors. It includes judges, lawmakers, and prisoners. They include politicians and national policymakers. Additionally, it includes journalists and media sites that support punishment besides private business actors who profit from it.[3]

“It is known by various names- mass imprisonment, the prison boom, the carceral state, or hyperincarceration. This phenomena relates to the contemporary American experiment in incarceration, which is characterized by historically and comparably high rates of incarceration as well as a concentration of incarceration among young, African American men who live in concentrated disadvantaged neighborhood.”[4]

Criminal justice system in India-It constitutes the system that deals with the government organisations in charge of enforcing the law throughout the nation, handling criminal activity, and preserving peace and mutually beneficial relationships. Its goal is to ensure that everyone who experiences injustice at the hands of another person receives justice and relief. “There are two major types of criminal justice system in the world i.e. Adversarial and Inquisitorial systems. There are 4 components or pillars of the system: courts, police, prisons and prosecution”.[5]

The problem of mass incarceration in India

India’s prisons and prison system are infamous for their extreme congestion, filthy conditions, and violations of human rights. However, overcrowding, or mass incarceration, is the real issue. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) estimates, there were approximately 76% of prison inmates who were undertrials in 2020, and the alarming fact is that 68% of them were uneducated or school dropouts. [6]  The NCRB report from 2021 reveals the outcome relating to the incarceration of undertrials, which shows that as there were 4,27,165 undertrial prisoners, approximately 70.9% of prisoners were imprisoned for up to one year.[7]

Historical Background of Prison in India

A prison is a place where people who commit crimes are locked up for a certain period of time or for life. They are isolated from the society and have limited freedom. The prison system in India follows the British model of prison. Prisons have been there in India since ancient times. The aim was to prevent the criminals from doing the same crime again. But, the prison situation has worsened. Prisoners face abuse and cruelty. So, the Prison Enquiry Committee was formed in 1836, which suggested to stop making prisoners work on roads.

The next Jail Enquiry Committee in 1862 focused on the poor hygiene of the prisons, which caused many prisoners to die from diseases and bad surroundings. It emphasized the importance of giving prisoners enough food and clothes and taking care of their health. The third committee also gave some suggestions, and based on these suggestions, the Prison Act, 1894, was passed.

The Prisons Act of 1894 aimed to make the functioning of prisons in the country consistent. The Act has a section 4 that ensures the prisoners have hygienic living conditions and space. The act also has a section 7 that protects the prisoners who are more than the prison capacity. The act has another section 35 that deals with the under trials, parole, and release of the prisoners. Besides these, the Prisons Act 1984 grants various other rights to the prisoners. [8]But, these changes did not improve the prison situation. The Indian Jail Reforms Committee in 1919-20 recommended ways to improve the prisons. It recommended setting the limit of each jail. After independence, the Constitution of India put “jail” along with “police and law and order” in the State list under the Seventh Schedule. Sadly, no importance was given to the management of prisons.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Rama Murthy v. State of Karnataka (1997), pointed out specific problems and issues faced by prisons and prisoners in India. These issues made the government understand that there was a need to change jails and prisons in the country.[9]

In spite of the existence of various national and international laws, mass incarceration is a cause of great concern for our government and now there are so many amendments and changes made in the legal system to eliminate the loopholes in our justice system, still the occupancy rate in the prisons is high and overcrowding prevails.

Impact of mass incarceration in India

Criminal Law of India is a copy of colonial times. It is unfriendly to the poor and the weaker sections of society. The law still favours and protects the interests of the rich and neglects the poor. Such unfairness has resulted in wealthy people avoiding law and the jail is more often filled with the disadvantaged class of society. The hierarchy of courts and with appeals after appeal have led to a situation where the poor cannot access the temple of justice due to high cost of its access. In other words one can say that giving justice at a higher cost indirectly means the refusal of justice. Such circumstances lead to a clear violation of the Supreme Courtjudgement which held, legal aid to a poor is a constitutional duty not only by virtue of “Article 39A but Articles 14, 19, 21 which cannot be denied by the government.[10][11] But “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Some of the hardships and difficulties faced by prisoners and Indian society are as below:

1. Rising instances of poverty– Mass incarceration adversely affects the individuals and community leading to poverty in the individual’s household. Problem arises when the bread earner of the family is undertrial or under pre-trial. The whole family suffers because of the imprisonment of that one member and new expenses also added in the list as the consulting fees for lawyers, food and transport expenses of the imprisoned person etc. It leads to miserable fate of the members and trapped them in the viscous circle of poverty. As we all know all are not well off to pay the fees of legal consultants and thus the bail problem leads to financial problems in the society.

2. Severe Health Consequences faced by the prisoners and the society- Due to the problem of overcrowding on the rise in the prisons of our country, there has been serious health problems. Since most of the prisoners either come from backward communities or are uneducated, basic hygienic problems used to arise. It is also because of lack of basic cleanliness in the prison cells and deteriorating quality of basic civic amenities in the prisons. Unfortunately, prisoners become the victims of diseases like, tuberculosis, infections- HIV, Hepatitis A and B. But the situation becomes worse in the pandemic when every corner of the world was under the trap of corona virus and many new variants were on rise like omicron etc. Danger is not limited to prisoners only but also to the prison staff as well which indirectly affects the society. According to Covid- 19 spread reports, mass incarceration acts as a multiplier force in many countries.[12]

3. Social Impact- Relationships and social bonds get affected due to mass incarceration. Social cohesion becomes weak as the maintenance of such cohesion is based on long term relation and mutual trust. Imprisonment disrupts the family structure and thus, the relationship between spouses and as well between children gets adverse. Thus, due to mass imprisonment, communities and societies go through serious social implications.[13]Problem of prison violence also arises due to overcrowding in the prisons.

4. Impact on International relations– The effects of overcrowding are not only domestic but also global. If we do not enhance the prison conditions within the country, we will never get any of the escapees who have left the country to be sent back or extradited to India. Because one of the requirements for extradition is prison reform under the UN Convention against Torture. “This was the reason why India failed to bring KIM DEVY from Denmark who is charged with the PURULIA ARMS DROP CASE.[14]

5. Impact of hardened criminals on prisoners- One of the biggest obstacles, especially in Maharashtra prisons, is that most of the prisons in Maharashtra, primarily Mumbai, allow various types of criminals, such as overseas and domestic terrorists, blast convicts, and also members of the criminal syndicate, mafia, etc. This is another major result of mass incarceration. For example, in Maharashtra in which the rate of occupancy is about 152.7%. Therefore, when there is the congestion of criminals engaged in minor theft or other minor crimes that are imprisoned beside serious criminals belonging to organised crime or other terrorists, you might end up with casual training centres in a jail where a trivial criminal may turn into a member of an organised crime syndicate or a terrorist.[15]

6. Increased in incidents of custodial tortures and deaths- Custodial tortures or deaths are the main cause of death in the prisons. In most of the cases, the main victims are women. It is an open secret of the prisons in India. There are various factors for the same but the mass incarceration deteriorates the situation as many incidents and cases remain unrecorded or called as suicides. Authorities use to take the advantage of their power in case the victim filed a complaint. There are many legal provisions to deal with the policemen like S.330, 331 and 348 of the IPC, S.25& 26 of The Evidence Act, S.76 of the Crpc and S.29 of The Police Act, 1861.[16]

7. Impact of the mass incarceration on children in prison because of their parents–  In 2021, 1650 women were incarcerated, and they were the mothers of 1867 children, according to the NCRB Report.  The first crucial thing we must understand is that these kids are not criminals, and they can stay in jail with their moms till they turn at least six years old. They haven’t broken any laws. Because one of their parents is incarcerated, they ended up there. Additionally, both parents are frequently behind bars. In terms of the schooling and mental state of these kids, the six years children spend living within the prison dramatically change how they view the world. Therefore, therapeutic sessions with these kids are necessary, and they shouldn’t be confined in a facility alongside hardened offenders.

8. Impact of mass incarceration worsens in case of improper reintegration process- In our criminal justice system, Reintegration is the term used to describe the process of returning to society after being in prison or jail. Reintegration involves restoring the rights and freedoms that were lost due to incarceration. This process can be gradual, such as when inmates are released on parole, transferred to halfway houses, or put under house arrest with increasing privileges. Or, reintegration can be sudden, such as when inmates complete their sentences and are released without supervision. Reintegration is very important because society may have undergone many changes during the time that an inmate was locked up. Without a proper reintegration program, inmates may struggle to adjust to the new social environment. This can be harmful for both individuals and society because people who are alienated or marginalized may pose a serious risk to social order and stability. Some of the states that are doing well on the reintegration program are states like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

9. Impact of mass incarceration on the women: the serious concern- The safety and fair treatment of inmates, especially women, is guaranteed by a number of advanced norms, although these rules are not always followed in practise. Lack of female personnel, inadequate and crowded housing, poor sanitation and hygiene, inadequate services for needs related to physical and mental health, inadequate nutrition, minimal educational opportunities, and frequently useless skill and job education are issues that women must deal with. Many mothers who raise their children while living together do not have access to the proper recreational, health, and educational opportunities.

These problems, in addition to a dearth of legal assistance inside the jail, restricted communication with the outside world, and a high incidence of assault by other prisoners and staff, worsen the situation for women. After their release, their reintegration into society is a serious concern.

Suggestion: Making the necessary adjustments to services, procedures, and infrastructure is crucial when more women are incarcerated in order to meet their unique demands. Keeping prisons isolated from the outside world makes it more challenging to maintain sanitary conditions. Allowing independent and routine inspections is crucial for improving rule compliance.[17]

Is Mass incarceration responsible for violation of legal provisions and recommendations?

To answer the above question, we should have an insight into the legal rights and other provisions and recommendations of various committees. According to Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, “In our world prisoners are still laboratories of torture, warehouses in which human commodities are sadistically kept and where spectrums of inmates range from driftwood juveniles to heroic dissenters.” Non- availability of rights to prisons betrays our faith in criminal justice system as prisoners are humans too.

The core of human rights in India consists of fundamental rights. These are the essential rights of the citizens that cannot be violated in any situation. The country’s law also ensures some of these rights to the prisoners as well, such as Article 14, 19, 21. However, the prisoners cannot enjoy the full spectrum of the fundamental rights. The right to fair procedure is the heart of Article 21 for the prisoners. Reasonableness in any restriction is the key of Article 19(5) and arbitrary discrimination due to excessive discretion is unacceptable for Article 14.

The above mentioned fundamental rights are responsible for the following rights of the prisoners-

1. Right to privacy

2. Right against solitary confinement and bar fetters

3. Right to life and personal liberty

4. Right to live with human dignity

5. Right to health and medical treatment

6. Right to a speedy trial (also mentioned in S. 309 of Code of Criminal Procedure)

7. Right to legal aid

8. Right against inhuman treatment

9. Right to education also includes Right to publication

The above rights available to prisoners raises various questions which remains unanswered. Firstly, are these rights are actually available to the prisoners? Secondly, is the issue of mass incarceration infringes the right to privacy? Thirdly, ae the serious correctional measures have been taken by the law enforcement authorities to make the situation less worsen? Fourthly, whether our criminal justice system is really responsible for the mass incarceration or it is the effect of political bureaucracy?

The Transfer of Prisoner Act, 1950

The above mentioned act is important in the context of the problem of mass incarceration. The main aim of the act is to ensure the transfer of prison between the states to avoid the problem of overcrowding for the maintenance of basic human dignity and for the purpose of vocational training.[18]

Important case laws in the context of the problem of mass incarceration are as follows-

In the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration[19], The prestigious Supreme Court emphasised that alone time should only be used in exceptional circumstances in which the prisoner poses a risk or harm that makes his isolation absolutely necessary. The court added that subjecting convicts to 24-hour iron shackling reduces their access to the status of animals and is bad for their mental health. As a result, the courts have been outspokenly against solitary confinement and have called it extremely inhumane and offensive. Additionally, they stated that such restrictions go against the fundamental principles of the Indian Constitution.

In the case of Kashmira Singh v. State of Punjab, [20]bail crisis was an issue. The Hon’ble Supreme Court directed that right to personal liberty enshrined in Art.21 of the Constitution covers the ‘right to bail’. Thus, if a person is detained in a jail for the undecided period of time for crime not committed by that person causes a breach of justice. Thus, the bail crisis, in spite of legal provisions to speed up the process of getting bail aggravates the problem of mass incarceration.

In the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar[21], it was held by the Supreme Court that

if the undertrial prisoners are kept in the prison cells for a long time, it leads to the violation of Art. 21 of the constitution. Thus, it can be said that mass incarceration violates the legal rights of the prisoners no matter whether they are undertrial or pre-trial.


The prison system in India was established by Macaulay’s Minute of 1835, issued by the Indian jail reform committee. Though, already various suggestions have been put forward by various esteemed committees in our country.

The Mulla committee (1980), which emphasized the government’s obligation to ensure humane living conditions for prisoners and their rehabilitation.

The Iyer committee, which focused on the problems faced by women prisoners and advocated for more female representation in the Police Services and prison administration. It also called for a gender-sensitive approach in prison management.

The Roy committee, which addressed the issue of overcrowding in prisons and correctional homes and proposed solutions.

Besides following the recommendations of the committee, other measures like, Fast Track Courts (FTCs) or Special Courts and Speedy trials can be taken into account. But the most important is the proper applicability of the legal provisions in the acts and statutes. And there are UN reforms through Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN Recommendations on Life Imprisonment etc.[22]


At the end of our research paper, it can be concluded that before the problem of mass incarceration raises the new issue of overcriminalysing and touch the huge occupancy rate as in US, proper measures should be taken.

The impact of mass incarceration is devastating and there is also a need to reform the criminal justice system. Lengthy, highly complex and procedural law and system are of no use if the innocent or guilty persons in prisons are denied their rights in our country especially the basic fundamental rights. And there is much more to explore in the issue of mass incarceration and realities of India in case of imprisonment and treatment inequalities among various communities.


Name of College- Army Institute of Law, Mohali

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[2]Katherine Banks, Is Mass Incarceration Ethical?, Katherine Keeps Writing (Nov. 10, 2020),

[3] What is Mass Incarceration?, End Mass Incarceration, (last visited July 12, 2023).

[4]Marie Gottschalk, Mass Incarceration, Oxford Bibliographies (May 26, 2011),

[5] Anubhav Pandey, Criminal Justice System in India, iPleaders (Jan. 5, 2018),

[6] Next IAS, NCRB Report on Prison Inmates (May 4, 2022),


[8] Ananya Singh & Shreya Singh, State of Prisoners in India (July 29, 2021),

[9] Ramanuj Mukherjee et al., Criminal Justice System in India (July 23, 2019),

[10] Patricia R., Contemporary Human Rights Issues in India, LinkedIn (Nov. 25, 2019), (accessed Jul. 23, 2023).

[11]Shubham Kumar, The Problems of Undertrials (Oct. 6, 2018),

[12] Emily Widra & Tiana Herring, Since March 2020, COVID-19 has killed more people in U.S. prisons than the past 10 years of jail suicides (Dec. 21, 2021),

[13] Prison Reform and Alternatives to Imprisonment, UNITED NATIONS OFF. ON DRUGS & CRIME, (last visited Jan. 5, 2022).

[14] Legal Lore, Why and How Prison Reform in India? A Critical Analysis, Legal Lore (Nov. 14, 2020), (accessed Jul. 23, 2023).

[15]Anshuman Singh, Why and How Prison Reform in India: A Critical Analysis (Dec. 25, 2020),

[16] Custodial Violence, BYJU’S, (last visited Jan. 5, 2022).

[17] Ministry of Women and Child Development, Report of the Committee on Reforms in the Criminal Justice System of India, 1 (Government of India, 2003),

[18]Rishabh Jain Prisoner Rights in India v. World, iPLEADERS ( (Jul. 12, 2018).

[19] Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, 1980 A.I.R. 1579, 1980 S.C.R. (2) 557 (India).

[20] Kashmira Singh v. State of Punjab, 1977 A.I.R. 2147 (India)

[21] Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar, 1979 A.I.R. 1360 (India).

[22] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Prison Reform and Alternatives to Imprisonment, UNODC ( (last visited Jul. 12, 2023).