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The Need for Rehabilitative Incarceration in India

India’s prison system is failing. The prison and prisoners’ laws in India have remained unnoticed in recent years. There is a lack of serious legislation for prisoners, who deserve their right to live with dignity, and basic respect like all their fellow citizens of the country. There are many instances in Indian prisons where prisoners have been subjected to inhuman conditions or treatment and deprived of basic needs such as proper food and proper sanitary conditions.

Rampant problems of overcrowding in multiple prisons all over India, lack of prison discipline, under staffing, lack of legal aid or attention, poor healthcare and sanitation facilities, and criminality in prisons have not helped in deterring crime in India. The prison system as it operates today is a legacy of British rule in our country. It was the creation of the colonial rulers over our penal system with the motive of making imprisonment a terror to wrongdoers. As a result, the repercussions are still being felt today by many prisoners residing within degradable jails in India.

In recent years, The Central government has promised to inject funds into improving prison security and maintenance, providing key facilities for women inmates, and training prison officers. The Centre has also asserted that “an inmate does not become a non-person in jail” and that “under the limits of incarceration, a person in prison is entitled to all human rights.” However, these optimistic plans and positive assertions have not helped in improving the underachieving status of the Indian prison system. These problems persist. Therefore, rather than ameliorating the current system, which has been the aim of the federal government since independence, there is a desperate need for a new system altogether. A rehabilitative system instead of a retributive one.

Rehabilitation in Norway

Figure 1: The Positives of Rehabilitative Incarceration in Norway

Norway is often used as an example to exemplify a well-functioning democratic state, embodying core democratic values surrounding egalitarianism and welfare for all. It is impossible to find soaring levels of crime in a country focused on providing generous unemployment benefit schemes, liberal social welfare schemes, universal right to secondary level education, and a free public health care system for its citizens. Norway has also been praised for providing a second chance to its criminals.

In the early 1990s, the Norwegian Correctional Service went through a series of positive reforms aiming towards rehabilitation, which have largely attributed to the success of the Norwegian penal system.

The Norwegian prison system, unlike the Indian prison system, does not focus on punishing its convicts. Rather, the functioning of the former is driven by the motivation to rehabilitate its inmates to directly address recidivism in the country. (Recidivism refers to the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend.)

In Norway, prisoners are allowed to reside in prison complexes closer to their home environment, which can help in the maintenance of their communities and family bonds while being allowed to make use of the rehabilitation facilities in the prisons. Prisoners are kept in open prisons, which aim to grant the inmate more freedom, relaxed surroundings, less intimidating security measures, and intensive programmes aimed to boost their integration back into society. Barriers, fences, and concrete walls are eliminated from the perimeters of the prison, allowing inmates a significant level of freedom unknown to inmates in the Indian prison system. Additionally, technology is utilized to track the location of the prisoners to prevent any dangerous mishaps. Open prisons like the famous Halden prison in Norway aim to shorten the physical and social distance between inmates and the outside world, with prisoners being motivated to wander into town in search of jobs and chores.

Furthermore, one of the most important elements when it comes to maintaining the framework of prison systems is the behaviour of the prison staff. Attitudes of staff, especially prison guards, are thought to directly influence the success of correctional rehabilitation programs and the successful reintegration of prisoners after their release. Norwegian prison staff undergo rigorous training for two years, and the selection process is very delicate. Termed as “dynamic security” by Are Hoidal, the prison governor at Halden Prison, guards and prisoners are involved in activities together, strengthening the latter’s social ties. The case is quite the contrary in India, where prison staff is either too harsh or non-existent.

The Norwegian prison system provides substantial job training, raises employment, and reduces crime, mostly due to changes for individuals who were not employed prior to imprisonment. It is an unprecedented success story; and it has definitely helped in reducing the recidivism rate in Norway, which sits at a positive 20%, compared to India’s 4.1%. However, with India’s gargantuan population, an inconsistent bureaucracy, and a large volume of unreported cases, the recidivism rate might easily be in the double digits. Rehabilitative incarceration can provide a breath of fresh air to the Indian penal system.

Hurdles in Imposing Rehabilitative Incarceration in India

1. Cost

While efforts have been made towards rehabilitating prisoners in India, these efforts have largely been loose, minuscule, and ineffective. Most importantly, prisons situated in rural and semi-urban areas, as opposed to a few metropolitan prisons, have not followed suit, and incarceration continues to revolve around punishment rather than recuperation. Therefore, a central plan for all prisons is needed to impose rehabilitative incarceration in India. While the Norwegian prison system is expensive, prison reform is still largely affordable in India, and might even lead to saving money if recidivism rates fall and sentences shorten. Moreover, to the extent that prison increases post-release employment, this would ultimately increase tax revenue and can have a minuscule, but effective contribution to the economy. And while it is difficult to monetize the advantages from fewer crimes being committed, the gains from reduced victimization and rehabilitative incarceration can be possibly large.

2. Population and Geography

India possesses a massive and varied geography and is home to around 1.3 billion out of the 7 billion residing on earth. Dotted settlements and a diverse population with different cultures and varied societal perspectives, along with poor connectivity between urban, semi-urban and rural areas, and inconsistent communication between the centre and the state can be major deterrents towards imposing meaningful prison reforms. Coupled with a self-interested bureaucracy and ineffective local governments, it will be an arduous task for policymakers and reformers to bring about changes in the prison system in India.

Credits: Mid-Day

3. Society and Culture

In the past decade, India has witnessed some heinous crimes being committed within its borders or by its own citizens. Violent crimes, such as the Nirbhaya rape case in 2012, the Unnao rape case in 2017, the Kathua rape case in 2018, and the Palghar mob lynching in 2020, coupled with white-collar crimes committed by the likes of Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya, have stirred up anger and acrimony amongst the Indian citizens. In the aftermath of the conventional violent cases mentioned above, the idea of the death penalty was tossed around in the media, and harsher punishments were asked to deter crimes of such magnitude. However, reports have shown that the death penalty cannot be held as an effective deterrent, as has been the case in India. However, the ordinary Indian citizen’s perspective towards criminals has not been shaped recently but has been born out of decades of British rule and colonial laws set in pre-Independence India, some of which continue to exist unamended in the IPC (Indian Penal Code) to this day. Furthermore, to admit that we have the same values as that of our democratic counterpart Norway would be a lie. Norway is seen as an exception to the international rule of conjunction towards the increasingly penalizing Neo-liberal model characteristic of the Anglophone countries, something which India had adopted in the British era. In contrast to India, where a focus on penal rather than social measures, and workfare rather than welfare has been the tendency, Norway combines a high level of equality with government efficiency, a relatively stable employment market and generous welfare schemes in a way unparalleled elsewhere in the world.


Despite India's huge prison population owing to the rampant crime rates in the country, there is a complete lack of attention being given towards the condition of prisons and their inmates. Reforming the law and establishing experimental rehabilitation centers in or around urban areas with the sole focus on rehabilitating prison inmates can initiate a trickle-down effect, wherein prison reforms can easily be carried out in far corners of India if urban rehabilitation centers are successful. Strenuous training and rich incentives for prison staff may help in alleviating any stressful mood inside the prisons.

Reforms are heavily needed in the criminal justice system of India. Penalization hasn’t worked wonders in the country, and there is a success story of rehabilitative incarceration in Norway and many other countries within Scandinavia. Even outside the Fjords, many European countries are increasingly incorporating Scandinavian prison reforms. India’s goal right now is to reduce incarceration and recidivism, which can only be achieved if there is a complete overhaul of the prison system.


Currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at O.P Jindal Global University, Aryan Anand takes keen interest in the field of public policy, with international history and security studies being some of his other passions. He can be contacted through his mail,, or his Instagram profile, @lilpeanutbutterjelly.

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