Chained Women: Life Behind Bars

March 25th, 20126:08 pm @    

 “While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now I’ll fight; while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight, I’ll fight to the very end!”
– William Booth


Everyday everybody is fighting for their rights. Someone is approaching court for property matters, someone is approaching Court for silly family disputes but has anyone ever given a thought to the condition of those people who are facing mental torcher almost every day by living an aloof life away from the society. Yes, I am talking about those people who spend life behind bars. My object behind writing this article is to draw the attention of readers to those women prisoners who are living away from their family and facing mental and physical harassment, not only by the society but even by jail authorities.

As Hon’able Justice Krishna Iyer said in Sunil Batra case[2] “Convicts are not by mere reason of the conviction denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise possess.”

UDHR guideline, 1948 also says that “No one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment”

Human Rights of Female Prisoners

 Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right of personal liberty and thereby prohibits any inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment to any person. But the reality is exactly opposite as Prisoners’ fundamental rights are infringed at every second. Even the prisoners do posses some human rights. They also have right to be treated as Human. If a woman commits any crime, it does not mean that by committing a crime, she ceases to be a human being and she can be deprived of those aspects of life which constitutes human dignity. The State is under an obligation for protecting the human rights of the prisoners as well.

women behind barsWomen, who usually lead protected lives. From childhood they are protected under the shelter of their father and after marriage under the shelter of their husbands. But when those women come in conflict with law and imprisoned, it becomes impossible for them to cope with the prison environment. Prison isolates the women from their family and friends. And most of the times even their family and friends reject them, which brings depression, guilt and torment on them. Traditionally, most of the prison inmates were males, and the prison environment is therefore shaped by the need of males and do not cater to the special needs of women prisoners. The gender disadvantage and discrimination gets worsened during imprisonment, which is further amplified upon their release from prison.[3] Women in prison suffer from double disadvantage. Women prisoners frequently become the victims of physical and sexual abuse by the jail authority themselves. At times, male staff does not hesitate to do frisk search on female prisoners. There are instances when prison staff have endorsed and supported bullying and verbal abuse of women prisoners, if they do not listen to them.

Judicial Pronouncements

The Indian Supreme Court has been active in responding to human right violations in Indian jails and has, in the process, recognized a number of rights of prisoners by interpreting Articles 21, 19, 22, 32, 37 and 39A of the Constitution in a positive and humane way. In a leading judgment of Sheela Barsey v. State of Maharashtra[4], The Hon’ able Court has given certain guidelines such as,

  1. Four or five lock ups should be selected reasonably good localities where only female prisoners should be kept which should be guided by female suspects only.
  2. Interrogation of female suspects should be in front of female constables only.

In addition to this, the question of cruelty to prisoners is dealt, by the Prisons Act, 1894. The Prisoners Act, 1900 deals with certain regulations of prison to be followed by Jail authorities. As well as Section 46 of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 also provides with a provision for women prisoners, which clearly states that “no women shall be arrested after sunset and before sunrise.”

 The All India Committee on Jail Reforms (1980-1983), the Supreme Court of India and the Committee of Empowerment of Women (2001-2002) have all highlighted the need for a comprehensive revision of the prison laws but the pace of any change has been disappointing. The Supreme Court of India has however expanded the horizons of prisoner’s rights jurisprudence through a series of judgments. But In spite of so many guidelines by judiciary, the condition of women prisoners is getting worse day by day.

(Read more on Rights relating to arrest of Women in India)

Condition of Women Prisoners

It is very well said “Women’s chains have been forged by men, not by anatomy[5].” Custodial horror is a daily occurrence for women prisoners in India. After all, what can women do when their ‘custodians’ become their violators? The question is very intimidating and frightening but this is actually happening to women in India. There have been innumerable cases where ‘men-in-khaki,’ have been caught outraging the women prisoners’ modesty, not only inside and but even outside the jails. Women prisoners in India are not just raped but they are even murdered brutally by policemen.

The state of Maharashtra has registered the highest number of custodial deaths i.e. 316, followed by Uttar Pradesh (255). According to the National Human Rights Commission, there are 2318 cases of custody deaths across the country, all of which have been committed by policemen, since October 1993. A few women who served prison terms have alleged torture and inhuman treatment within the prisons across Tamil Nadu. Three remand women prisoners, spoke to the media at a meeting organized by the campaign against custodial justice and abolition of torture of the Society for Integrated Rural Development and said that they were stripped naked and abused verbally and physically and they were not even provided with the basic necessities.[6] A similar instance from Khetri Jail, Rajasthan occurred, where two jailers bailed out a woman and kept her for a week[7].

Family Attitude towards Women Prisoners

The majority of women offenders convicted for homicidal activities were poorly adjusted to the family settings. In many cases, their offence directly stemmed from their husband and in-law’s cruelty, rejection and humiliation. Husband’s illicit affairs with other women, alcohol and substance use, domestic violence contributed significantly in motivating married women to resort to crimes. Women prisoners are often rejected by their family members. Family and friends are treated to be the soul mates but even they too abandon the females who are suffering in jails. Due to which they suffer from mental trauma as well.

In 2003, one tribal woman had to return to the female district jail at Bhagalpur because none in her family her husband, in-laws, her children and not even her parents accepted her. She overstayed for four years in the jail.

Later, she died within 15 days of her release, when her parents finally volunteered to give her shelter. “Her shock was unbearable”. This is what happens with the women prisoners, in the end they are left abandoned by both the family and jail authorities.


Torture against women in penal custody is considered as a particularly severe
violation of human rights with heightened responsibility from the State for the
individual in its custody. In U.S. the legislature has enacted a specific legislation named as The Prison Rape Elimination Act, 2003 for the welfare of women prisoners and to prevent them from abuse but In India, we are still anticipating for specific act to deals with such problems. Even the jail manual drafted by 3 committees and Major Recommendations contained in Justice Krishna Iyer Report on Women Prisoners, 1987, is not able to control the crimes against women by custodians. So, here the question arises who is at fault?  Is it the legislature, who have not enacted any specific legislation on crimes done against women prisoners by Custodians or is it the jail authorities, who are given responsibility to rehabilitate those prisoners but they are totally going against the ethics of prison.


[1] Quote by William Booth

[2] Sunil Batra vs. Delhi Administration, AIR 1978 SC 1575

[3] dated 9 February, 2012

[4] 1983 AIR  378 by Justice PN Bhagwati

[5] By Estelle R. Ramey

[6] TNN Mar 8, 2011

[7] dated 16 February, 2012

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Bhumika is a pursuing BA.LLB from Mody Institute of Science and Technology, Rajasthan. Her area of interest is Corporate Law. She loves to play guitar and has a knack for writing.

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