Privy Legal Service - Moiz K Rafique
Privy Legal Service - Moiz K Rafique

Beyond Bars: Understanding the potential of Open Prisons for the Indian subcontinent

This article explores the merits and demerits of open prisons in detail, concentrating on the Indian situation.

The concept of open prisons is introduced in this article in the context of a paradigm change in the philosophy of corrections. The emphasis on rehabilitation and conformity to changing human rights norms is challenging the outdated, punishment-only perspective of jail. An alternate strategy that is distinguished by a less restrictive setting is represented by open prisons. But if such a liberalized system is put into place, reservations about possible security threats and the chance of higher recidivism still exist. This article explores this discussion in greater detail, concentrating on the Indian situation of open prisons.


The effectiveness of conventional prisons in promoting rehabilitation has been called into question owing to their punitive orientation and constricted surroundings. On the other hand, open prisons provide a more progressive method of incarceration. Self-control and trust are emphasized as fundamental values in these minimum-security setup. Open prisons, in contrast to traditional prisons, frequently have no surrounding walls and depend mostly on the sense of responsibility and reintegration commitment of their inmates. In most cases, residents take part in labor programs, live in dorms, and have opportunities for monitored community interaction. This strategy aims to prepare prisoners for a smooth reintegration into society by fostering a sense of accountability and normalcy. Open prisons may be useful in lowering recidivism rates, according to research.

For instance, a study titled “Open Prisons and Recidivism” noted that open prisons work towards potential reduction of recidivism. Simultaneously, studies indicate that prison settings that facilitate convict reintegration, such as open prisons, are notably successful in lowering recidivism rates.

The Indian Open Prison setup

In 1949, India witnessed its first open prison in Lucknow. The emergence of such facilities was aimed specifically to aid in the rehabilitation of inmates and their reintegration into society after release. The idea was extended in 1953 when the State of Uttar Pradesh set up an open prison camp to facilitate the building of a dam on the Chandraprabha River close to Varanasi. Open prison camps proliferated in the 1950s with establishments in Chakiya, Naugarh, and Shahgarh. In 1963, Rajasthan set up its first jail camp in Sanganer. Interestingly, these camps became known as "Sampurnanand camps" because of Sampurnanand, a well-known reformist who supported them in the 1950s. [N. V. Paranjape, Criminology and Penology (Central Law Publications, 11th edn., 2001)]

In addition, open prisons offer prospects for inmate income via work programs that include building of public utilities, agriculture, and other related endeavours. These earnings often go to the families of prisoners, allowing for ongoing financial support throughout the incarceration. Whereas, as per National Crime Records Bureau’s Data from 2022, there are total 91 open prisons in India, across 17 States with Arunachal Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Goa, Haryana, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh and all UTs having none.

Assessing the viability of open prisons in India

Overcrowding is more than a decade old problem that the Indian jails have been facing. In a letter dated May 9, 2011, the Ministry of Home Affairs highlighted that the prisons in India were overcrowded to the extent of 129 percent. Of all the total prisoners, 67 percent were undertrial prisoners. According to this figure, pretrial custody times might be unduly lengthy, which would greatly enhance the overcrowding problem. Furthermore, overcrowding brings in problems pertaining to health and hygiene, deteriorating living conditions and also reduces the potential for rehabilitation.

That in the present times as well, out of the total 5,73,220 prisoners, 4,34,302 are under trial prisoners, when already the prisons are overcrowded to the extent of 131.4 percent (NCRB 2022). In these circumstances, to ensure that such undertrial prisoners do not face the wrath of prisons without concrete conviction, open prisons can provide a very viable solution to redress the current problem of overcrowding. Even the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, vide its landmark judgement in Bhim Singh v. Union of India had issued series of directions to States to ensure the release of undertrial prisoners who had already served half of their maximum prison term while laying down a two-month deadline.

The apex court in 2018 as well, while dealing with a Public Interest Litigation case concerning the issue of overcrowded prisons, observed that it was expected of the State governments to not only utilize the existing open prisons capacity but also increase the capacity of such prisons, if deemed necessary.

In addition to the above, it also becomes increasingly important to highlight the research initiative of the Rajasthan State Legal Services Authority and Hon’ble Mr. Justice KS Jhaveri, wherein it was observed, by means of analyzing comparative data between the central prison at Jaipur and open prison at Sanganer that open prisons are “not resource intensive” but rather “cost effective.” This discussion also gains a spotlight because the NCRB 2022 data explicitly highlights an approximate 34 percent increase in the Actual Expenditure of the Prison Budget from ₹5,814.4 crores in 2020-21 to ₹7,781.9 crores in 2022-23.

Recently, the Allahabad High Court directed the Uttar Pradesh State government to study the open prison concept so as to cater to the personal liberty of inmates and accordingly prepare a scheme towards serving the said cause. Further, the Allahabad High Court also expressed concerns with regards to the families who are dependent on the inmates. The incarceration might also deprive the inmate’s family members of their fundamental rights.

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The conversation around open prisons in India should not solely revolve around alleviating overcrowding. We must acknowledge the fundamental rights of inmates, particularly undertrial prisoners, whose lives are significantly impacted by incarceration. The process does not just affect the individual, but their families and communities as well. Modern correctional philosophy emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment. In this context, open prisons, with their focus on reintegration and a more humane environment, emerge as a viable option for India. This shift can not only address overcrowding but also uphold the inherent rights of those caught in the justice system.

Overcoming the challenges

One of the most imminent threats in the open prison model is safety, wherein there is ample scope of escape by inmates. It is important to note that in the past five years, 28 inmates had managed to escape open prisons in Maharashtra. One of the most instrumental ways in overcoming the said challenge is to establish a suitable selection process duly considering psychological assessments and evaluations. Although prison management happens to be a subject matter of the State List, the Centre is still well-equipped to formulate laws in this regard by means of Article 253 of the Constitution which enables the Centre to implement international treaties, agreements, or conventions. In light of the same, a uniform systematized and inclusive model scheme can be enacted which demarcates the eligibility for open prisons which will further strengthen the commitment of reformative incarceration.

Only the success of model open prisons can instill the necessary confidence in the system and guarantee that there is no opposition to the promotion of more such prisons, when it comes to the issue of building trust between the society and the convicts/ ex-convicts. Additionally, in order to assess the causal relationship between the success of the projects and the gainful employment of these inmates, as well as to guarantee that there is no recidivism among them, extensive and ongoing monitoring of the projects and the inmates is required.


In summary, open prisons present a strong substitute for India's existing jail system. Although there are still issues with resource allocation and building a trust factor in the entire arrangement, there are unquestionable potential advantages to open prisons. A more efficient and compassionate prison system may result into lower recidivism rates, cost-effectiveness, and an emphasis on rehabilitation inmates. To fully explore the possibilities of open prisons in the Indian subcontinent, more studies, pilot programs, and policy changes are necessary. India may take a step towards a future where prisons serve as both a means of punishing criminal activity and providing tools for inmates to reintegrate into society by adopting a more progressive stance on incarceration.

About the author: Moiz K Rafique is a practicing advocate before the Gujarat High Court and the Managing Partner at Privy Legal Service LLP.

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