Labour Jurisprudence and Indian Prisons: A Drift towards Reformation

Shivani Singh

Under the scars and the tattoos

Dwells a man who cares.

Under the hate and the anger

Lives love and compassion.

Under the mask of “Damn it, I just don’t care!”

Lives hope and dreams.

Under the “I don’t need anyone” role I play

Is a desire to trust.

Under the blood stains on my hands

I find shame.

Under the cold outside

Is a man who needs to be loved.

Under the biker, killer, convict

Is a father, a son, a brother, an uncle and a friend.


I’m like a bucket of water in prison

Who would like to be poured back into the streams of life.

So I ask God Almighty to forgive me

For pouring my bucket of water in the sand.

By Rick M.

“It is said that 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.”

― Nelson Mandela

Prisons, though for a short or longer period are places of living for both accused as well as convicts. In India prisons are considered to be the critical indicators of human rights violation. The condition of the jails is appalling in comparison to any of its other basic public facilities. The money spent on jail reforms and development of their basic amenities is negligible by comparison to the amount spent renovating the residences of “honourable” ministers and restructuring their legislative assemblies. The government of India organizes welfare schemes for cows, but ignores the plight of millions of citizens languishing in custody under horrifying conditions.

The drift of treating prisoners as ‘out-casts’ to treating them as human beings set in only from the beginning of this century .The prisoners were recognised as societal human beings who should be made useful to the society. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises that the individual is entitled to certain basic rights. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Hate the crime and not the criminal”.

Development of Thought:

Custody, care and treatment are the three main functions of a modern prison organization. For over 100 years, there was emphasis on custody which, it was believed, depended on good order and discipline. The notion of prison discipline was to make imprison¬ment deterrent. Consequently, hard punitive labour with no regard for the human personalities and severe punishments were the main basis of prison treatment.

Gradually, the objective of imprisonment changed from mere deter¬rence to deterrence and reformation. This led to the abandonment of some of the barbaric punishments and introduction of the system of awards for good work and conduct in the form of remission, review of sentences, wages for prison labour, treatment in open conditions, parole,etc.

The objectives of ‘prison labour’ have varied from time to time. The first All India Jails Committee of 1936-38, advocated that monotonous and uninter¬esting tasks should be provided to prisoners and remarked that the criminal was least eligible for being taught useful arts which was considered as reward neutralizing the pain of punishment.

On the contrary, the All India Jails Committee of 1919-20 recommended that the main objective of prison labour should be the prevention of further crime by the reformation of criminals, for which they were to be given instruction in up-to-date methods of work enabling them to earn a living wage on release. The other objectives were to keep the offenders use fully engaged, to prevent mental damage and to enable them to contribute to the cost of their maintenance.

Work that is now allotted to prisoners on the basis of their health, length of sentence, prior knowledge of a trade, and the trade which was most likely to provide a living wage on release.

After independence, punitive labour such as extraction of oil by manual labour was abolished and more useful programmes were introduced. Some effort has also been made during the last three decades to train prisoners largely drawn from among agriculturists in modern methods of agriculture and animal husbandry but, for want of land, only limited progress could be made in this direction.

There is need for the introduction of a greater variety of trades and professions, keeping in view the possibilities of self-employment of prisoners on release. Better qualified instructors, modern tools and equipment and a proper wages system would provide meaningful work experience to the prisoners.

Labour and work in prison and correctional institutions :

A sentence of imprisonment undermines the family cohesion and security, destroys the prospects of legal earning for himself and for his family and results in the loss of employment and assets.

Prisons in India are not only a liability on society but have lost the very essence of their objective. Most of the prisons in our country (barring two or maximum three) are a cost for the nation. The total expenditure on all prisons combined, across the nation, was estimated to be around Rs.2,69,726.80 lakhs during the year 2010-11, with every prisoner, on an average, costing the exchequer Rs.19,446.60 (2010-11 data)! Now, here is where the paradox lies. These criminals are stuffed (literally) into our prisons since they have created either an economic loss or social loss to the country; and they are then made to survive on the tax paid by that very aggrieved society. In simple terms, the total cost on all prisoners put together is shared by around 150,000 taxpayers!

Assigning labour to inmates in correctional institutions is considered today a major issue. Work is necessary for keeping inmates engaged to contain their idleness and reduce their unrest and disciplinary problems, for removing their monotony and improving their morale, for assigning such hard labour to them which may deter them from repeatedly indulging in crime.

For teaching them some useful trade which may help them to become self-supporting after release from prison, for enabling them to earn and get some extra facilities for themselves in jails and also for sending some money to their families to support their children, and for reducing the operating cost of maintaining jails.

Thus, the basic objective of prison labour is not only punitive nor to make jails self-sufficient but also to keep prisoners engaged.

The tasks assigned to prison inmates till a few decades back were generally unproductive. Besides, a large number of inmates remained entirely unemployed. Even today, no work is assigned to the under trials and prisoners of ‘A’ class.

In all, six systems of prison labour have been identified which prevailed/prevail in different parts of the world. These systems are: the lease system, the contract system, the piece price system, the state use system, the state account system and the public works system.

The first three are private systems while the last three are public systems. In India, only the last three public systems of prison labour are prevalent at present .Therefore , these three are discussed below :

 Under the state account (or also called the public account) system, inmates manufacture various commodities in the institution and the products are sold in the open market in competition with the goods produced by free labour. The state thus earns profit (or incurs loss) and exercises complete control over the inmates as well as the entire business.

This system is prevalent in India even today and things like carpets, niwar, furniture, durries, flower-pots, cane baskets, etc. are sold by prisons in the open market. But the system has not picked up much owing to small demand for prison-made goods, poor quality of the goocL produced, introduction of machinery in private industry, and lack of capital and transportation facilities.

 Under the state use system, the state supplies products of prisoners to public institutions and agencies (like the police, schools, post-office government offices, and so forth). This practice of restricting the mark avoids direct competition with private enterprise and free labour while utilising prison labour for the benefit of the public.

 Under the public works system, the services of prisoners are used for constructing dams, digging canals, cultivating land, and so forth. The prisoners are paid the same wages as are paid to free labour. However, the prisoners have to arrange for their own food out of the wages earned by them.

The state account and the state use systems are the two systems which are usually adopted by prisons in India. The training “given and the work assigned to inmates in prisons can be classified into five major groups: textiles and subsidiary, carpentry, leather work, black smithy, and producing soap, rope, etc. It is estimated that no more than 30 to 35 per cent of prisoners are engaged in productive work.Of these, more than 50 per cent are engaged in durrie-making, 25 per cent in handloom textiles, and the remaining 25 per cent in other tasks (like carpentry, tailoring, black-smithy, etc.).

A majority of the workers (about 80%) feel dissatisfied with the work assigned to them. It is, therefore, necessary that before assigning work to prisoners, the authorities concerned must examine: (i) the effect of work on the health of prisoners, (ii) effect of work on reformation and value-changes, (iii) economic benefit to the state, (iv) effect on administration’s efficiency, (v) competition with market, and (vi) market demand. Besides these considerations, other factors which can be given importance in assigning work could be term of prisoner’s imprisonment, his age, education and previous training, the nature of crime, economic benefit to the prisoner, and the rehabilitative value of the work assigned.

Right to Reasonable Wages in Prison:

Whenever during the imprisonment, the prisoners are made to work in the prison, they must be paid wages at the reasonable rate. The wages should not be below minimum wages. The payment has to be equivalent to the service rendered, otherwise it would be ‘forced labour’ within the meaning of Article 23 of the Constitution. In such a case there is no difference between a prisoner serving a sentence inside the prison walls and a freeman in the society .

In the case of People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India , the Bench observed thus:

“We are, therefore, of the view that where a person provides labour or service to another or remuneration which is less than the minimum wage, the labour or service provided by him clearly falls within the scope and ambit of the words “forced labour” under Article 23.”

Initially, payment of wages to prisoners was opposed on the ground that they were already a burden on the State. Gradually, the need for providing some motivation to prisoners was realized and it was considered that some monetary reward would develop interest in work and provide the necessary incentive, more so if the prisoner was allowed to use the earnings on himself or his family.

Maharashtra was the first State to introduce in 1949 a very comprehensive system of wages.

In some of the open prisons, prisoners are paid wages at market rates out of which they pay to State their cost of maintenance. There is now a growing realization that such liberal system of wages would provide greater incentive for higher and better production.

In the case of Mahammad Giasuddin v. State of A.P. , the court directed the state to take into account that the wages should be paid at a reasonable rate. It should not be below minimum wages, this factor should be taken into account while finalizing the rules for payment of wages to prisoners, as well as to give retrospective effect to wage policy.

In the case of State of Gujarat v. Hon’ble High Court of Gujarat(1998), A delicate issue requiring very circumspective approach mooted before the court. Whether prisoners, who are required to do labour as part of their punishment, should necessarily be paid wages for such work at the rates prescribed under Minimum Wages law. The court has before him appeals filed by some State Governments challenging the judgments rendered by the respective High Courts which in principle upheld the contention that denial of wages at such rates would fringe on infringement of the Constitution protection against exaction of forced labour.

A Division Bench in the case of Gurdev Singh v. State Himachal Pradesh , the court said that Article 23 of the Constitution prohibits ‘forced Labour’ and mandated that any contravention of such prohibition shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law. The court had no doubt that paying a pittance to them is virtually paying nothing. Even if the amount paid to them were a little more than a nominal sum the resultant position would remain the same. Government of India had set up in 1980 a Committee on jail reforms under the Chairmanship of Mr. Justice A.N. Mulla, a retired judge of the Allahabad High Court. The report submitted by the said Committee is known as ‘Mulla Committee Report’. It contains a lot of valuable suggestions, among which the following are contextually apposite.

“All prisoners under sentence should be required to work subject to their physical and mental fitness as determined medically. Work is not to be conceived as additional punishment but as a means of furthering the rehabilitation of the prisoners, there training for work, the forming of better work habits, and of preventing idleness and disorder………..Punitive, repressive and afflictive work in any form should not be given to prisoners. Work should not become drudgery and a meaningless prison activity. Work and training programmes should be treated as important avenues of imparting useful values to inmates for their vocational and social adjustment and also for their ultimate rehabilitation in the free community……….Rates of Wages should be fair and equitable and not merely nominal or paltry. These rates should be standardized so as to achieve a broad uniformity in wage system in all the prisons in cash State and Union Territory.”

The court finally gave the following observations:

(1) It is lawful to employ the prisoners sentenced to rigorous imprisonment to do hard labour whether he consents to do it or not.

(2) It is open to the jail officials to permit other prisoners also to do any work which they choose to do provided such prisoners make a request for that purpose.

(3) It is imperative that the prisoner should be paid equitable wages for the work done by them. In order to determine the quantum of equitable wages payable to prisoners the State concerned shall constitute a wage fixation body for making recommendations. We direct each State to do so as early as possible.

(4) Until the State Government takes any decision on such recommendations every prisoner must be paid wages for the work done by him at such rates or revised rates as the Government concerned fixes in the light of the observations made above. For this purpose we direct all the State Governments to fix the rate of such interim wages within six weeks from today and report to this Court of compliance of this direction.

(5) State concerned should make law for setting apart a portion of the wages earned by the prisoners to be paid as compensation to deserving victims of the offence the commission of which entailed the sentence of imprisonment to the prisoner, either directly or through a common fund to be created for this purpose or in any other feasible mode.

A few examples of a positive work culture in Jails of India :-

 In 1949, the central prison at Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh was converted into a ‘model prison” for accommodating star class prisoners who are the best behaved. Here, every prisoner is studied and given educational and vocational training where after he gets an opportunity for self-employment in an environment similar to the outside world as far as possible. On the basis of his progress, as assessed from time to time, a prisoner is given graded freedom from maxi¬mum security to free-living conditions without any watch and ward during day or night. The prisoner pays to the State the cost of his maintenance from his earnings.

 At central jail of Hyderabad many prisoners are doing different works some are doing work in the kitchen some are doing handwork like making carpets, handy craft in there cells.

Jail superintend Pir Shabir Jan Sarhandi said that we want to make these criminals as a respected citizens so when they go out they can do there jobs as they learned in the jail.

 A high-security prison near Hyderabad is launching an innovative scheme to turn convicts into “outsourcing providers” for local firms and eventually, it is hoped, international clients. The scheme is in its early stages, with prisoners being trained in basic data entry skills. Jail authorities hope that inmates will soon be just as likely to tap at a keyboard as dig vegetables, make carpets or stitch uniforms.

 The Tihar Jail Factory is located in Central Jail No.2, Tihar, New Delhi. It was setup in the year 1961 with the objective to engage prison inmates in productive work. Over the period of time, there has been manifold growth in the scope and activities of the Jail Factory. At present, Tihar Jail Factory has Carpentry, Weaving (Handloom & Powerloom), Tailoring, Chemical, Handmade Paper, Commercial Art and Bakery units. The Bakery unit is known as Tihar Baking School. A very high level of cleanliness and hygiene is maintained in all manufacturing units. The Jail administration also runs various vocational & technical training programmes for skill development, reformation & rehabilitation of prison inmates in these units. A new Shoe-making unit was started in December 2009 under Public-Private Partnership model. The products manufactured in Jail Factory are sold under the brand name of “TJ’s” .

 In Tihar Jail, women inmates are taught knitting and sewing, and their products are sold outside, even abroad. Ms Max, whom some inmates describe as a social worker-cum-business woman, brings the raw materials and pays the inmates according to their work. Some inmates manage to earn up to Rs 1000 a month. A pair of multi-coloured stockings earns Rs 70, while each glove knitted with jute fetches Rs 40. Last year the inmates made 3000 pairs of stockings between April and December to meet an export order. Although this could be viewed as an example of rehabilitation, it also has a hidden profit motive of pure business.

 Inmates of Vadodara, Surat and Sabarmati central jails will soon be seen refueling vehicles at petrol pumps, which are to come up in these cities.

The Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) has agreed to allot petrol pumps to these prisons and they can become operational within a year, officials in the state prison department said.

Prisoners with a record of disciplined behaviour inside the three jails will be trained and subsequently “employed” as attendants, said officials, adding that IOCL will provide certificates to these inmates. “This will help prisoners in getting employment after they complete their jail terms,” added an official.

While the prisoners in the above case are getting some remittance for their work, most inmates are not so lucky. Forced prison labour is common throughout India. When the practice was challenged in the Supreme Court, it ruled that prisoners are also entitled to minimum wages, and directed states to make the necessary provisions accordingly. When the question was argued at length, counsel appearing for the state argued that state governments should be allowed to deduct a certain amount for providing basic amenities to prisoners. The implication of this argument was that it is not the duty of the state to keep the prisoner, but rather the obligation of the prisoner to pay for himself. Upon final consideration, the court directed state governments to make provisions for an “adequate wage” for prison labour (All India Reporter 1998, Supreme Court, p. 3164). Unfortunately, the “adequate wage” is often as little as Rs 14 for skilled labour and Rs 9 for unskilled labour, that is, not even seven per cent of the minimum wage legislated for non-convicts.


When there exist 42.9 per cent prisoners who are educated till class 10 and 6.44 per cent being graduates and above, it is senseless for authorities not to make the most of their competencies. The more educated can train those who are not that well learned, so that they can lead decent lives after their move back to real world once their confinement is complete. Our prisons should get privatized and their management outsourced. It might seem like a far-away vision now but it’s a usual practice in the West, especially in the US.

The Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill 1972 provides new forms of punishments such as experiment, pay¬ment of compensation to the victim, corrective labour, public censure etc.

The programmes of work and educational and vocational training should be such as would benefit the offender after his release. Work is now not to be treated as additional punishment but should be treated as an important means of imparting useful values to in¬mates for vocational and social adjustment and rehabilitation.

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