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India is the world’s largest democracy, a model country that displays fundamental rights for its citizens and its prisoners. Given India’s history of violence-led protests and the socio-cultural-economical environment being formed due to that, it, in turn, has led a major part in generating crimes ranging from small petty offenses to grave and heinous offenses. When one thinks about prison, the first image that comes to mind is a three-walled room with one barred window, a bed made of stone, and minimal facilities. Prisons are made with the idea of deterrence where a prisoner is kept in a prison, away from society, to deter them from further committing any crimes or offending society at any level. Even after 75 years of independence, there hasn’t been a very stark difference in the prison reforms of our country, but a minuscule change that has been adopted on the lines of other countries is that of open-air prisons and was introduced in India during the 1950s.

What are open-air prisons?

As per the oxford dictionary, open-air prisons are defined as a prison where prisoners have more freedom because they are trusted not to escape. They can also be understood as any penal establishment where prisoners receive minimal supervision and are not locked up in prison cells. They are allowed to meet their family members, earn to sustain themselves and their families. Currently, open prisons can be found in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, and many other places. As per the First U.N it is characterized by the absence of material or physical precautions against escape like walls, locks, bars, etc, and by a system based on self-discipline and the inmate’s sense of responsibility towards the group in which he lives. This in turn encourages the inmate to use the freedom accorded to him without abusing it. The concept of Open Air Prisons is based on the reformative theory of punishment.

Reformative theory of punishment

As a crucial part of the theory of criminal justice, the Reformative Theory of Punishment aims to rehabilitate the offender to the norms of society and turn them into law-abiding members. The theory aims at transforming the law-offenders in such a way that the inmates of the peno- correctional institutions can lead a life like a normal citizen. People become criminals due to both choice and necessity, where both are interrelated in such a way that one leads to the other. The basic necessity of survival is when there is a lack of resources when there is a lack of respect and dignity in the society you live in when there is a lack of education which leads one towards unemployment and hence towards committing petty offenses and then towards big offenses. This necessity then becomes into a choice, for criminals, it’s the only choice they have when burdened under necessity. Looking at crimes from a more behavioural aspect, it looks like a constant fight between the character and the motive of the criminal. One may commit a crime either because the temptation of the motive is stronger or because the restrain imposed by character is weaker. At the same time, the theory of punishing a criminal by reformation tries to strengthen the character of the criminal so that he doesn’t become a victim of his temptation.

Why Open Air Prisons?

Open Air Prisons are seen as a more humane alternative to prisons that are not only overpopulated but also take up a lot of financial resources to maintain themselves. These are trust-based prisons based on minimum security and provide incentives to the criminals to maintain the trust and not commit a crime while being in minimum security. They are given incentives like living with their families, earning, and even moving out of prison for work. Due to the number of closed walls and lack of communication between inmates and the outside world, inmates are bound to slowly lose track of the outside world and may not be able to rehabilitate themselves and live like normal law-abiding citizens after the release. Therefore, open prisons are seen as a better alternative. Two major reasons as to why open-air prisons are seen as a better alternative to normal prisons are firstly overcrowding and secondly financial management.

The issue of overcrowding

Indian prisons have been extremely overcrowded for many years now, not only including prisoners who are under trial but even including prisoners who are yet to be put on trial by the court. This is majorly due to dire dependency on our courts which lack a proper number of judges who are required to judge these cases not only effectively but in time as well. The judge to prisoner ratio already being at its lowest affects the number of cases heard even daily. As per the Prison Statistics India 2020, there are 54 open jails with a total capacity of 5070 but only filled with 3799 inmates, whereas both the central and district jails are highly overcrowded. This issue gained more attraction during the sudden virus outbreak in the country, as close contact amongst the prisoners due to lack of per person space available and lack of attention towards covid-19 precautions like wearing a mask or even sanitizing your surroundings at regular intervals, was becoming a major reason for a large surplus of positive cases from prisons itself.

Issue of financial management

The provision of adequate funds is a prerequisite in the effective functioning of prison institutions. But is being observed that the allocated budget for prisons in our country has been reducing year to year. The sanctioned budget for 2020-21 has decreased by 2.9% in comparison to 2019-20 from Rs.6,942.4 crore to Rs. 6,740.6 crore and only 34% of this amount are spent on the inmates. Even if we look at this state-wise, Andhra Pradesh spent the most while Meghalaya spent the least. Maintaining prisons is becoming expensive day by day while negligible attention is being given to the inmates who live in deplorable and inhuman conditions for years.

How open-air prisons solve these two problems

Open-air prisons which are prisons with minimum security solve the problem of overcrowding as detainees who have already completed a majority part of their sentence and even detainees who show the will to improve their character and become law-abiding citizens can be put into these prisons. Secondly, they solve the problem of financing, as open-air prisons require not only less security but also the prisoners are given an opportunity to earn and a part of the earning is contributed towards the prison.

Looking at it from a legal lens

In 1966, in Rama Murthy V. State Of Karnataka, the Supreme Court advocated for the need for major prison reforms to take and the need of open prisons and even directed to create more and more open prisons. In Ravindra Vithal Patil V. The Superintendent, the court directed that the petitioner be sent to an open jail as he’s been in jail continuously since 1994 and how many who have a lesser punishment are already availing the facilities of open jails. In Dharambir V. State of Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court stated that “open prisons had certain advantages in the context of young offenders who could be protected from some of the well-known vices to which young inmates are subjected in conventional jails”. The court even directed those certain conditions like profession and keeping the prisoner in contact with their family is taken into consideration to restore the prisoner’s crippled psyche.


Jails act as deterrants to criminals from committing crimes. If we become more lenient towards them and them knowing the fact that they have a very fair opportunity of being sent to an open prison, it would in turn encourage them to commit more crimes and not dread the life of a prison. Adding to it that the concept of open jails has been a part of the prison reforms for years but always fails to take the limelight due to a lack of implementation and belief in this concept.

  • Underutilization: open-air prisons are highly underutilized. This shows that the way correctional facilities like conventional jails are stuffed to the rim, open jails are vacant.
  • Biasness: in most states, prisoners are chosen by an advisory group who aren’t supposed to give any justification behind them choosing a particular inmate. This can lead to partiality and biasness.
  • Lack of open prisons: due to prisons being included in the state list subject, open prisons are only present in a few states and none present in the Union Territories.
  • There is no legal provision for under-trial prisoners to be sent to open-air prisons.
  • Open air prisons can be made for under trial prisoners who have committed non violent crimes or have been falsely accused or crimes they didn’t commit, this would help in reducing the prison population by a large number.


The strong belief in giving a hardcore punishment to an offender surpasses the concept of open jails which works on the theory of reformative punishment. Yet, the significant contributions made by open jails to our modern jail system should be taken into consideration and given its due regard. Despite, the problems that open jails propose, they should be considered as an important part of the modern jail system as they solve two major problems like overcrowding and financing. It is quite saddening that even though open prisons have been in existence for more than 7 decades now, states don’t consider it to be a viable alternative to conventional jails. Therefore, to conclude, active measures should be taken to bring open jails into the limelight, and more and more open jails are established in states.

Author(s) Name: Suhani Singhal (Institute of Law, Nirma University)