Open Prison System: Origin and Relevance

March 6th, 20131:35 pm @    

People do make mistakes and I think they should be punished. But they should be forgiven and given the opportunity for a second chance. We are human beings.”

–          David Millar

Every person who commits a crime is deemed to punishment but this does not mean that he needs to repay it with his life. And thus he should be given a second chance to a better living and an opportunity to build a life of honor and respect.

The study of criminology describes various theories of punishments and the most useful in this regard is the ‘Reformative Theory’. Also with time, and the development in the criminological thinking there is a new scope for a fresh approach, as discussed under the reformative approach where in the reformation of offenders to law abiding members of society. And the concepts of parole (correctional device for reformation) and probation (rehabilitation of offenders in the community) are recommended as the best measures to reclaim offenders to the society as reformed persons.

Thus the governments pursuing the same objective have come up with a concept of ‘Open Jails’. Though the concept has been in existence for quite some time, but it is still developing and introducing new junctures to a better life of prisoners.

The Backdrop Of Imprisonment:

Imprisonment is the most renowned and simple penal form of punishment wherein the offenders are incapacited within prisons for a certain period of time. But the system of minimum security institutions such as open prisons and prison hostels are being increasingly used as modified forms of incarceration of offender because despite being a corrective measure, the most convoluted problem involved in the imprisonment is the measure of ‘prisonisation’ of offenders. Wherein an offender not only faces the problem of adjusting to the environment of prison life but also his identity and is converted into merely an impersonal entity.

Yet another setback of imprisonment as a mode of punishment is its damaging effect on the personal and family life of an offender as he is totally cut off from the society as a whole. As for prisonisation of women offenders, is in itself a big problem for the prison administration, because in matters of women the authorities are forced to be more liberal in granting remissions, furloughs, parole etc. , or in the alternative they are sent to women reformatories called as Nari Sudhar Graha.

The system of parole as a corrective measure and rehabilitative process has thus been promoted in form of open jails and open air camps during preceding five decades. The essence of this concept lies in absence of physical restraints and a system based on self- discipline and sense of responsibility towards the group in which the inmate (prisoner) lives. And the major objective of the system is the social rehabilitation of the inmates by employing them with work which will prepare them for future responsibilities and employment after their release.

It is significant to note that these institutions are used not only for those who have served a considerable part of their sentence in prison but also for the initial prisoners, if they are so recommended by the parole authorities.

Jails and their History

In early times the prisoners were faced with inhuman and insanitary conditions in the prisons which as a result caused loss of  life to many. Thus many recommendations were made by various committees in order to lift the insufferable conditions to a well refined prison administration.

Milestones in the History of Prisons

U.K. in the 1930’s and the United States around the 1940’s first established the system of open jails. And Sir Alexander Palerson, the member Secretary of the Prison Commission of U.K. made outstanding contribution to the development of the system.

The basic assumptions supporting the theory were;

  • A person is sent to prison as a punishment and not for punishment.
  • If the prisoners are given certain freedoms and liberty, they would respond favorably and would not betray the confidence displayed on them.

With time the system started to develop and advanced towards new horizons. And the closing of the 19th century witnessed the beginning of a new phase, as an emerging concept of a semi-open prison institution came into view. The first ever prison of this kind was established in Switzerland by the name of Witzwill. The feedback followed appreciating the same.

Open Prisons in the early 1900s

During the 19th century America had open air prisons in which the prisoners who were near to finishing of their sentence would be transferred as laborers, under supervision and close watch of guards. Some prison camps were also organized in Massachusetts and California around 1915. And a farm type institution with suitable facilities for work was proposed near the town of Chino in South California, under the guidance of State Board of Prison Directors. However the idea of minimum security did not settle with the existing Prison Board, finally in 1938 a new Prison Board was proposed supporting the objective. Scudder once said;

‘…there can be no regeneration except in freedom. The rehabilitation must come from within the individual and not through coercion.’

This thought was further elaborated in the Declaration of Principles of the American Correctional Association (1960) in reference to the open peno-correctional institutions;

  • No law, procedure or system of correction should deprive any offender of the hope and possibility of his ultimate return to the society as a responsible citizen. And he must be extended every opportunity to raise his educational level, improve vocational skills and add to his information meaningful knowledge about the world and the society to which he belongs.
  • All the employable offenders should have a right to an opportunity of being engaged in productive work.
  • In the course of open peno-institutional treatment, the offender continues as a member of the correctional community so that he can develop within him the spirit of energetic, resourceful and organized citizen participation.

As rightly said by Denise Hildreth Jones:                                                                                   

“Some things just couldn’t be protected from storms. Some things simply needed to be broken off…Once old thing were broken off; amazingly beautiful thing could grow in their place.” 

International Perspective

With time it was observed that prisonisation may only be appropriate for a certain category of offenders, as imprisonment had a drastic effect on some offenders who instead of becoming useful citizens become tough and frustrated criminals with rather enhanced competence for crime. Thus open and semi-open prisons, work release and other semi-institutional methods of treatment have proved far more useful for such offenders.

As a result the concept of open-prisons as a part of after-care device had been accepted at the International level. This has helped a lot in formulating interest among professional men in the adoption of new ideas and experiments in the field of prison reforms. And the treatment of offenders in open conditions similar to outside world as far as possible, found wide acceptance in several countries. This has proved to be a great contribution to the development of progressive penology and a professional approach to treatment of offenders at the International plane.

The subject of these open-institutions was largely discussed in the First United Nation Congress on Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders held in Geneva in 1955. And by the time the Second meeting was held in London in 1960, the open-institution had set its roots in the Anglo-American prison system for the correctional treatment of offenders.

National Perspective

In ancient India, Manu emphasized on reformation of the offender rather than punishing him indiscriminately. He was of the view that unjust and harsh punishments make offenders more dangerous to society and also bring disrepute to law administrators. Thus he strongly pleaded that an effective and efficient scheme of after-care be introduced to help bring about the rehabilitation of even the most dangerous and hardened criminals.

 Tony Robbins said;

By changing nothing, nothing changes.”

Origin and development in India

The development of the open prison system in India can be traced back in the 1830s. With the appointment of the First All India jail committee in 1836, to review the prison administration of the country, however the results did not prove successful for long. It was later followed by the appointment of the Second Jail Committee, and then it was in 1877 that the question of employing prisoners on the major work sites was put forth in the Prison Conference of the year. The recommendation was accepted and has since been in practice though with some changes as thought fit.

During 1920-27, a number of committees were appointed by the provincial governments for further reviews of prison administration but nothing could actually be done in the direction until post-independence.

The post independence periods witnessed some significant changes in the policies and techniques of prison administration. It was realized that the inmates (offenders) shall be given proper opportunities to associate and communicate freely with the society and the gap between the outside and the inside world should be cut down as far as possible. The first commendable effort was made by Sir Walter Reckless, the U.N. Technical Expert who visited India in 1952.

The appointment of an All India Jail Committee 1956-57 was the result. This committee worked hard for over three years and made appreciative recommendations for prison reforms. One of these recommendations was the establishment of open jails and the main emphasis was on self-discipline and self-help.

It would not be wrong to say that though the concept of employment of prisoners is an old concept but the main objectives of such employment have vastly changed in the sense. Earlier it was meant to take hard work from prisoners in conditions inhuman and humiliating, whereas today it is set at providing them with useful and meaningful work under helpful conditions aiming at restoring their self-respect and self-confidence.

Often it is observed that “It is a matter of discipline and techniques, if inmates are chosen with proper thought and supervision of work if performed with care and caution, the whole system can work miracles in the field of rehabilitation.”

Advantages of Open Prison System

In the open prison system the selected offenders are placed under open air camps, farm colonies or other outside work with a reasonable degree of safety. And the obvious advantages of such system are;

  • They help in reducing overcrowding in jails.
  • Construction cost is fairly reduced.
  • Operational cost is far lesser than that of the enclosed prisons.
  • Engaging the inmates of open air prisons in productive work keeps them mentally and physically fit.
  • Open opportunities for self-development and resocialization.
  • Help in conservation of natural resources and widens the scope of rehabilitative process.

Based on the twin concepts of parole (most acceptable form of correctional device, universally recognized as one of the most appropriate methods of reformation and rehabilitation of offenders) and probation (rehabilitation of offenders in the community) this theory of open prisons has gained popularity and acceptance as one of the best correctional techniques of reformation in modern penology.

Present Scenario

Today, there are numerous open-prison institutions in the world that work with  the objective of helping the inmates in becoming better persons, disciplined, attentive, aware and responsible towards the society they live in and also towards the world at large.

Nature of Open Prisons:

As discussed above open prison is an institution with no bars, set up in open air with minimum security. And some aspects describing the nature of open prison institutions in detail, such as;

  • It is open to prisoners, as they can go to work at any place as they wish during the day but have to come back in the evening;
  • It is open to security, these is absence of bars, locks, walls and armed guards.
  • It is open to organization, working is based on the inmate’s sense of responsibility, self-discipline and self confidence; and
  • It is open to public, people are free to visit the prison and meet the prisoners.

Eligibility for Open Prisons

The main conditions:

  • The candidates should be willing and ready to abide by the rules of the open prison. And they should by mentally and physically fit.
  • The prisoners for open prisons should be sentences for a term of one year or more and must have served atleast one-fourth of their sentence. They should have a record of good behavior in prisons.
  • They should not be less than 21 and not more than 50 years of age.
  • They should not have been convicted for certain crimes (like dacoity, forgery, counterfeiting, etc.) neither should they have any case pending in the courts.
  • They should not be habitual offenders or class 1 or women prisoners.

Though these conditions depend on the prisons and their respective administration.

National Situation

In India the first ever open air camp was set up attached to the Model Prison at Lucknow in 1949. Which was soon followed by the ‘Mauli Ali Agricultural Colony’ for Convicts in 1954. And so started the phase of change and development as various states followed the suit by establishing open-prison institutions for the inmates. Some of them are as follows;

  • An open-air prison at Yarvada, Maharashtra (1955)
  • Open Air Jail at Soundatti, Mysore (1968)
  • Open Prison at Amreli, Gujarat (1968)
  • Open Prison at Nettvketheri, Kerela (1962)
  • Open Air Agricultural Prison at Nabha, Punjab (1970)
  • Open Air Prison at Singanallur, Tamil Nadu (1956)
  • Prisoner’s Open Air Camp at Agricultural Research Farm at Durgapur, Rajasthan (1955)Shri Sampurnanand Bandi Shivir at Sanganer, Jaipur (1963)

{The state of Rajasthan has the highest number of open jails i.e. ten operating within the state}

In these jails there are no restrictions on the prisoners in respect of reading materials and are allowed to access material for the purpose of self nurturing and development of person. They are also allowed to pursue studies through open universities, and special lectures are held within the prisons for the educational development of the inmates.

A report has showed that by 1993-2000 a total of 149 prisoners were enrolled in various courses through IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open University) at the cost of the government. And 59 prisoners were enrolled for courses in higher education such as B.A, M.A, post graduate diploma in business administration from 2005 to 2007 with a total of Rs. 1,93,055.00 paid towards the fees. Also the Bangalore University has started a programme supporting this noble cause, they propose to impart formal education to prisoners in distance mode. In this programme prisoners are free to pursue their studies and enrol in different graduation and post-graduation programmes.

They are also provided daily newspaper, periodicals, magazines in all the regional languages so as to link their minds with the outside world and society.

As truly stated that,

‘Lonely life behind the bars dissipates human creativity and enthusiasm for engaging oneself in creative activity. Such a scenario makes our efforts to reform the prisoners more challenging. Thus we should work in order to overcome this and enthuse the prison inmates and help them in reforming emotionally too.’

–          Anonymous

Critical Appreciation

The open jail institutions proved to be quite useful and showed much positive results in the first two decades of their establishment in India. But unlike the system functioning in other nations the system in India started to face sharp declines after a period of time. Perhaps the reason was that there had been no significant addition to the existing jails after 1980. And the idea of special jails for women did not get much support either.

Many questions can forward regarding the system its problems, some of them being that, ‘Is it rightful that in an anxiety for reformation of prisoners, the basic fact that they are notorious and formidable criminals be neglected?’ or ‘Is it proper that one in order to avoid the “trouble” and “problems” with offenders merely transfers them, their rights and responsibilities to a ‘criminal chief’ who commands over his fellow-inmates on the basis of his power, strength and past status?’, ‘does the negligence of the prison officials not defeat the very purpose of open prisons?’ Thus the need of review of the functioning of the existing open prisons was felt.

As a result of which, the Jail Reforms Committee suggested two kinds of open prisons, open and semi-open jails and the criterion for segregation of prisoners should not be on the basis of their term of sentence, but overall possibility of prisoner’s propensity to reform and resocialisation.


However despite all the shortcomings and criticisms for the working of open prisons, it is an accepted fact that this system has become an important part of the present day prison system. And the service it has provided to the nation over the time is not only significant but appreciable.

There is no doubt as to the thought that ‘help’ and ‘hate’ should be the guiding principles underlying the modern prison administration.

And truly,

“Of all the methods by which a prison regime may hope to inculcate self-respect and self-responsibility and in other way prepare the prisoners for a rational life in society, the open prison institution appears to be itself the most effective”

–          Sir Lionel Fox

Article by

Anupriya is a student pursuing BA.LLB (Hons) course from Mody Institute of Science and Technology, Lakshmangarh, Rajasthan.

Enter your Email Address to Get Similar Articles in your Inbox Free!


MightyLaws is not responsible or liable for the views expressed by the authors. The articles are general information and should not be treated as legal advice. Please read the Disclaimer for further clarifications.