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Prison Reform in India

Everyday Life in a Prison: Confinement, Surveillance, Resistance by Mahuya Bandyopadhyay (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan), 2010; pp 354, Rs 845.







The All-India Committee on Jail Reform

Prison Reform in India

(Mulla) Report, 1980-83 f ollowed by the Expert Committee on Women Prisoners Report, 1986 made substantial recommen-SAHRDC dations for rehabilitation- focused prison

he Indian prison system, notorious for its cruel and inhumane conditions, has received substantial government attention in recent years. Though the Prisons Act, 1894 still constitutes the federal framework for prison regulation, a plethora of reports on prison reform have been submitted to the union government and circulated amongst prison administrators. Nevertheless, prison reform remains sluggish as rights are systematically denied to inmates. Mahuya Bandyopadhyay’s Everyday Life in a Prison: Confinement, Surveillance, Resistance is an insightful contribution to the debate on prison reform in India.

Sociological Mapping

Bandyopadhyay presents a sociological mapping of prison life and contends that prisoner rights are distributed as privileges, that inmates forfeit some of their rights in exchange for contraband items as a means of reasserting agency and creating a sense of continuity between life within and outside the prison. She explores the negotiated relationship between the warders and i nmates, and argues that mutual practices of subversion undermine the notion of the prison as a “total institution”.

Bandyopadhyay argues that prison reform policies fail to consider the sociological process of rehabilitation and suggests that material improvements in conditions can facilitate a subversive behaviour,

Everyday Life in a Prison: Confinement, Surveillance, Resistance by Mahuya Bandyopadhyay (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan), 2010; pp 354, Rs 845.

which may ultimately be more effective in creating linkage and continuity with life outside of the prison. She fails, however, to acknowledge that the “culture of leniency” recreates external social hierarchies in which the lowest strata of inmates are systematically denied their rights. Furthermore, the complicity of the prison staff in the prisoner’s acts of subversion perpetuates the cycle of endemic corruption, which, in turn, undermines the n otion that all are equal under the law, since the prison experience varies greatly depending on financial and social clout. The prison ultimately ceases to be an e ffective deterrent for some social strata.

Bandyopadhyay’s work points to the central paradox of the reform agenda wherein creating spaces for inmate agency leads to the reconstruction of the social situations which led to the initial crime. Her dismissal of the potential of institutionalised reform in order to facilitate r ehabilitation ignores inmates’ systematic deprivation of human rights.

Prison Agenda

The international impetus for prison r eform has been influential in India in r ecent years.

a dministration. These recommendations have been adopted by state authorities to varying degrees.1 The Bureau of Police Research and Development has also drafted a National Policy on Prison Reform and Administration and a Model Prison Manual which has similarly been circulated to the relevant bodies.2 Despite these efforts, legislated reform remains sluggish and the Prisons Act, 1894 remains the sole federal regulation on prison administration. A lack of commitment to the reform issue at state and federal levels, a lack of structures for administrative and public accountability and endemic corruption at the sites of reform mean that the reform agenda is undermined and the inmates’ rights are often systematically denied.

Bandyopadhyay suggests that the agenda of prison reform as articulated in the m yriad reports and international thinking on the issue have failed to take into account the everyday realities of prison life. “While the reports agree that a move from the deterrent motive of punishment to a rehabilitative and reformative disposition is essential for reforming the ‘criminals’”, she wrote in an earlier article on the issue of reform, “they do not clearly spell out the actual logistics of ensuring firm and positive discipline while safeguarding the human rights of the prisoners” (Bandyopadhyay 2007: 407).

Bandyopadhyay suggests that the focus on material improvements of prison conditions

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Economic & Political Weekly


may not be the most effective method of rehabilitating prisoners, but rather that a sense of agency can act as the linkage between life within and outside the prison walls. It is this sense of continuity of agency and construction of “meaningful worlds” that Bandyopadhyay argues best facilitates rehabilitation. “It is assumed”, she wrote,

that a change in the physical conditions of prison life will automatically institutionalise reform as an objective of the prison. However, these changes do not necessarily imply changed administrative practices aimed at reforming the prisoner/criminal (ibid).

From Bandyopadhyay’s observations at the prison, in fact, physical improvements did not facilitate administrative practices for reforming the prisoner, but rather facilitated spaces wherein prisoners could exercise some degree of agency.

Provision of Privileges

Bandyopadhyay argues that the physical conditions incorporated into prison administration as a result of the reform agenda are treated as privileges by prison administrators.

The attempts to provide certain facilities, either material or non-material, to prisoners in the context of modernising trends in prison administration are very often translated as privileges to be granted prisoners at the behest of the authorities... Such arbitrariness is a useful technique for the efficient management of the prisoner population (p 284).

Power relations between prisoners and prison administrators are constituted by the exchange of services. Interestingly, Bandyopadhyay observes that prisoners are often willing to forgo rights for the provision of contraband services. “Prisoners accepted certain unfair aspects of life in prison in spite of knowing that they could protest against them. In return, they had certain expectations from the system, which were fulfilled” (Bandyopadhyay 2007: 396). According to Bandyopadhyay, this exchange of rights for subversive services restores prisoners’ sense of a gency within the confines of the prison, undermining the sense of the prison as a totalising institution.

Bandyopadhyay observes that the arbitrary provision of “privileges” is awarded in a hierarchical fashion. Various reform reports have recommended flexibility in dealing

Economic & Political Weekly

january 15, 2011

with individual cases of prisoners and a system of classification according to the nature of the crime.3 Bandyopadhyay finds that this flexibility and categorisation, as well rewards to be used as a positive reinforcement, are awarded to prisoners with social and financial influence, creating a hierarchy that mimics external social structures:

For those prisoners who were perceived as decent and sober and from good families, maintaining a good relationship with the

o fficers was not a difficult task. Styles of dressing, talking and the general demeanour of the prisoners determines this perception. In the staff’s view, the ‘habitual’; or ‘professional’ criminals were the most difficult group. The prison, for them, was perceived as an extension of their criminal careers (p 15).

Culture of Leniency

By privileging some prisoners, “the prisoners

create hierarchies that dissolve the idea of

a homogeneous prison population. In this

case, the dissolution is a result of the for

mal structure of rule, which called for di

viding the prisoner community into gangs

and appointing leaders or convict watch

men to control the gangs” (ibid: 72). The

recreation of external structures of hierar

chy, Bandyopadhyay suggests, presents a

continuity between life inside and outside

the prison that facilitates the prisoner’s

construction of meaningful worlds. It is the

acts of subversion, and the constriction of

hierarchies that replicate life outside of the

prison walls that allow inmates to construct

meaningful worlds through exercising

some level of agency and control over their

everyday existence. Since Bandyopadhyay

argues that “reform within the prison can

only be effectively addressed when it

evolves from the prisoners”, she suggests

that rehabilitation of the prisoner is best

facilitated not by the mandatory uniform

material provisions, but rather through

the construction of interstitial spaces of

negotiation afforded through a culture of

leniency (Bandyopadhyay 2007: 410).

Bandyopadhyay illuminates the ways

in which the prison administrators are

complicit in the inmate’s subversion of prison

rules. Although the Prisons Act category

disallows business or other dealings bet

ween the inmates and warders, “corruption

within the prison, in connivance with the

staff, is common knowledge in the public

discourse on prisons”.4 Bandyopadhyay’s

vol xlvi no 3

notion that this corrupt service provision, the withholding for legislated rights from some prisoners, that is desirable to the prison population obfuscates those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, for whom the process of negotiating relationships with warders means that their rights are systematically violated.

Bandyopadhyay writes that

...this friendliness and sociability between the staff and the prisoners becomes one of the grounds for discrimination among prisoners. The prisoner community ceases to be a uniformly disadvantaged and controlled group (p 69).

Warders interact with inmates in a m utually beneficial relationship, which is nevertheless at the discretion of the prison administrators. The warders’ participation in subversive activities for their own benefit further cements the culture of corruption prevalent in the Indian prison a dmini stration system. Warders who feel they can withhold “privileges” (rights) from inmates are unlikely to facilitate r eform policies wherein rights are universally granted. This endemic corruption, which Bandyopadhyay takes for granted as a reality of the prison infrastructure, renders the reform agenda a highly ambitious endeavour as the prison administrators are unlikely to sacrifice the reward they regularly extract from their wards. The culture of leniency, thus, simultaneously allows prisoner agency and undermines the greater reform agenda. Bandyopadhyay’s argument that agency allows for rehabilitation is, therefore, short-sighted, and i gnores the systemic problems that arise.

Bandyopadhyay argues against the narrow interpretations of reform suggesting that

the idea of reform signifies the ability of a person to live a life that is both emotionally and physically based on free choice, which are made responsibly...It represents a life that is as close as possible to life outside of the prison walls, albeit in a narrow material sense (p 286).

Bandyopadhyay prioritises the element of free choice and continuity over the provision of basic material rights as the central referent of the agenda of reform. The replication of external hierarchies, however, can replicate the social scenario in which the initial crime occurred, thereby undermining the rehabilitation process.


“A deliberate muting of the prison’s coercive and abnormal character and an exaggeration of similar characteristics in a relatively free space shows that prisoners did not wish to present the prison as a special kind of coercive institution”, Bandyopadhyay points out. “Instead, they reflected on the coercive elements of their lives both within and outside the prison. Through such reflection they normalised the prison e xperience, while at the same time presenting as abnormal the pre-prison experience.” The normalisation of the prison experience and the normalisation of the coercive elements in outside life undermine the rehabilitation process. As prison hierarchies replicate the social reality of the outside, and prison experience becomes normalised, the hierarchical structures, corruption and subversion form a self-perpetuating cycle of continuity, undermining the possibility of rehabilitation.

Clinical Approach

Bandyopadhyay’s argument that the practice of prison reform follows a clinical a pproach to reform that does not account for the realities of prison life is a pertinent one. The proliferation of reform reports and the limited impact on the everyday existence of prisoners in India is a testimony to the fact that the reform agenda has not been pursued with the commitment required to make a meaningful change. Her argument, however, that the “culture of leniency” in the prison system creates a space in which prisoners can gain an agency and construct a meaningful world obscured the discrimination implicit in such a system, as well as the ways in which it cements further the culture of corruption amongst prison administrators.

Bandyopadhyay admits that the prison system in a process of reform is rife with hierarchies, but fails to investigate the e ffects of the system on those at the bottom thereof. In the sense that the hierarchical nature of prison life points to continuity rather than a break from the outside suggests that those at the bottom of social h ierarchy outside remain there on the i nside, meaning their access to programmes of reform is limited by their inability to negotiate effectively with the power structures both within and outside the prison walls. These people are denied

even the minimum rights established in Department of Prisons, Government of Karnataka,
the reform programme. In the sense that Report on Working of Prison Department: Achievements and Innovations, 2008. Available online at
incarceration serves as a deterrent, this
sends a dangerous message to the commu 2 Bureau of Police Research and Development, Draft National Policy on Prison Reform and A dministration.
nity: those with money and education, Available online at
and those who are aware of their rights ata/linkimages/0534473971-National%20Policy% 20on%20Prison%20Reform%20and%20Correc
serve a much milder punishment than tional%20Administration%20Part%201.pdf.
people who are at the bottom of the social 3 Penal Reform International, for example, recommend that “at key points in the criminal justice
hierarchy. The reform agenda establishes procedure, assessments should take account of
that cases should be treated on an indi the nature of the offence and its impact on any victim, as well as the characteristics of the indi
vidual bases and the prisoners are not to vidual, including age, gender, nationality, mental
be dehumanised while incarcerated.5 Yet, and physical health, prior record, and any other contributing or mitigating factors, such as family
classification of prisoners inevitably estab and home circumstances, which might have an
lishes hierarchies. What needs to be imple impact on the suitability of arrest or prosecution in the particular case.” These types of considera
mented is a system of variegated approaches tions, and privileges bestowed accordingly, can
to prisoner classification that cements, and feed into the culture of hierarchy and discrimination. See Prison Reform International, Making
builds on, the minimum standards of incar- Policy and Laws That Work: A Handbook for Law
ceration. If flexibility and prisoner agency and Policy Makers on Reform in Criminal Justice and Penal Legislation, Policy and Practice.
are to become incorporated in the prison L ondon: Penal Reform International, 2010. Avail
administrations, the utensils for negotia able at
tion need to be privileges rather than right. 4 For instance, Section 9 reads “No officer of a prison
Bandyopadhyay’s exploration of the ele shall sell or let, nor shall any person in trust for or employed by him, sell or let or derive any benefit
ment of choice as it functions in contem from selling or letting, any article to any prisoner
porary Indian prisons illuminates the or have any money or other business dealings directly or indirectly with any prisoner.” The Prisons
ways in which the notion that everyone is Act (1849), Sections 9 and 10. Available online at
equal under the law is undermined. Prison Also Bandyopadhyay, Everyday Life in a Prison, 67.
ceases to be an effective deterrent for the 5 The Penal Reform International, a prison reform
privileged few and a brutal experience for handbook, for instance, states that “an individualised approach can help to address the factors
the socially disadvantaged. that predispose people to offending behaviour
A meaningful reform in the prison sys and reduce the likelihood of re-offending. In practice, this means that at key points in the crim
tem cannot occur until the prison adminis inal justice procedure, assessments should take
tration operate fairly and in accordance account of the nature of the offence and its impact on any victim, as well as the characteristics of the
with the letter of the law with regard to individual, including age, gender, nationality,
human rights. The Indian reform move mental and physical health, prior record, and any other contributing or mitigating factors, such as
ment has been able to affect legislature, family and home circumstances, which might
but not practise because of administrative have an impact on the suitability of arrest or prosecution in the particular case.” The report does
corruption and lack of accountability. In not, however, make an explicit how flexibility and
her observation of prison life, Bandyopad individualisation can be applied with consistency and without discrimination. Penal Reform Inter
hyay takes for granted administrative corruption and fails to recognise the ways in national, Making Law and Policy That Work: A Handbook for Law and Policy Makers on Reforming Criminal Justice and Penal Legislation, Policy and
which the prisoners’ construction of mean- Practice. London: Penal Reform International, 2010.
ingful worlds through acts of subversion Available online at publications/making-law-and-policy-work.
perpetuate the cycle of corruption. While
they need to take into account methods of

Chandigarh 160 022


allowing prisoner agency, reformist and

Bandyopadhyay, Mahuya (2007): “Reform and Everyadministrators need to understand that day Practice: Some Issues of Prison Governance”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol 41, 407.

prisoner rights are non-negotiable.

SAHRDC is South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, New Delhi.

available at

EBS News Agency


1180, Sector 22-B,

1 The Karnataka Prison Manual, for instance, states that “the concept of Correction, Reformation and

Rehabilitation has come to the foreground and the prison administrations are now expected to Ph: 2703570 also function as curative and correctional centres”,

january 15, 2011 vol xlvi no 3 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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