Download File

May 01, 2020

By: Siddharth Lamba, Project Officer and Madhurima Dhanuka, Programme Head 

An analysis of prison trends globally indicates that while overall crime rates around the world have declined, the number of people in prison on any given day is rising.[1] This can be linked to the increasing use of pre-trial detention, lack of legal representation, less liberal use of provisional release procedures such as bail, and imposition of lengthier sentences. These in turn, contribute to prison overcrowding which often results in human rights violations.

The situation is no different in the Indian context, with the country’s prison population having increased at a higher rate than the rest of the world.  According to a report published by the Institute of Criminal Policy Research based on the data at the end of October 2015, the world’s prison population has increased by “almost 20%”, slightly higher than the 18% increase in the world’s general population, since 2000.[2] India’s prison population, from 2000 to 2018 has increased by a staggering 71%[3] against an estimated increase of 28.5% in the country’s general population[4]. This article analyses India’s prison statistics against global prison trends.

Prison Population and Incarceration Rates: India has the 5th highest prison population in the world. The United States ranks 1st, and is followed by China, Brazil, Russia and then India. India forms 4.22% of the world’s total prison population. U.S. and China together form 34.6% of the world’s total prison population. In Asia, China has 41% of the continent’s total prison population followed by India with 11.2%.[5]

Further, despite being ranked 5th for the largest prison population, India ranks 11th for lowest incarceration rate (34) among 223 countries. U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of 655 per 100,000 general population. In Asia, India has the lowest incarceration rate. China with the second highest prison population is ranked at 131 out of 223 countries.[6]

Overcrowding: Overcrowding in prisons is pervasive across the globe with 124 of 205 countries, having an overcrowded prison system.[7] As on 31st December, 2018 India’s prison system was overcrowded by 17.6%.[viii] However, statistical determination of overcrowding of the entire prison system of a country is a national average of occupancy levels of all the prisons. This can often be an under-assessment of the actual magnitude unless rates for prison-wise overcrowding too are considered. For example, one state in India has as occupancy rate as high as 176% while another at the lower extreme has just 30%.[9]

India ranks at 87 (out of 205) in the world and 16th (out of 27) in Asia in terms of national occupancy rates.[10] In the last six years, despite an increase of 13.9% in its prison capacity, the country’s occupancy rate remained at 117%.[11] This is because of the same rate of increase in the prison population.[11] Overcrowding in prisons despite a proportionate increase in infrastructural capacity can be because of multiple factors impacting admission and release of prisoners, such as increase in number of arrests by police[13], higher preventive detentions, and poor performance of release mechanisms like review boards, etc.

Pre-trial Detention: Pre-trial detention refers to the confinement of persons, accused of offences, whose guilt is yet to be established by the court. Such detention is not a sanction but a temporary measure to prevent the accused from tampering with evidence, influencing the witnesses or cause any other influence on the course of investigation or trial. Globally, an estimated 25% of world’s prisoners are pre-trial detainees.[14]Only in 21% of the 217 countries across the world, the pre-trial prisoners form more than half of their prison population.[15] India with 69.4% of its total prison population as pre-trial detainees, stands at 16th position.[16] While the world’s pre-trial prison population increased by 15% from 2000 to 2016, India’s pre-trial prison population increased by more than 25% in just last 10 years. During the same period, the convict population in India increased by 13%, almost half the rate of increase in the pre-trial population.[17]

Further, trends indicate that in India, the duration of imprisonment pending trial too is increasing. The share of pre-trial detainees who have spent more than a year in prison increased from 19% in 2000 to 25% in 2018.[18]  Prolonged detentions of pre-trial detainees is a deviation from the criminal justice principle and the right of an accused to be ‘presumed innocent until proven guilty’.

Women Prisoners: Globally, around 7% of the prisoners are women[19] whereas in India, women form 4.1% (19,242) of its total prison population. 68% of these women prisoners are pre-trial detainees.[20] From 2000 to 2018 the rate of increase of India’s women prisoner population is more than double of the global rate. India’s women prison population increased by 117.7% since 2000, against an increase of 53% in the world’s women prison population.[21]

These figures, showing minimal representation of women in prison populations on one hand and an alarming increase in their population on the other hand, raise further concerns. Women prisoners face multiple layers of vulnerability. Prison systems, historically having catered primarily to men, have become gender-exclusive. Prisons are neither designed nor administered keeping in mind gender perspectives. This has led to non-prioritisation of gender-based needs of prisoners.

As on December, 2018 only 15 of total 36 states and union territories in India had separate prisons for women.[22] In all other prisons, women are confined to separate enclosures inside male prisons. It is often observed that the women prisoners housed in such enclosures have limited access to the prison area outside the enclosures. This means that the open spaces for recreation, prison workspace, prison legal aid clinic, library, etc. are inaccessible for women prisoners.

Health Conditions in Prisons: India’s per prisoner medical expenditure has increased by 61% in the last ten years however it still remains nominal at $ 0.6 (USD) per prisoner per day.[23] In 2018, healthcare/medical expenditure on prisoners in India was 4.3% of its total expenditure on prisoners.[24] This is extremely low in comparison to 18% in U.S., 13% in U.K.: England and Wales and 9% each in Australia and Germany. However, countries like Ireland and South Africa have similar figures as that of India. [25]

Access to medical aid in prisons is a serious concern all across the globe.[26]  Rampant overcrowding, poor nutrition, unhygienic and stressful living conditions coupled with lack of medical personnel negatively impacts the health of prisoners. It also places them at high risk of contracting fatal diseases that can often lead to untimely death.

In 2018, there were 1845 deaths in Indian prisons.[27] With 5 prison deaths per day, India’s prison mortality rate at 3.96 per 1000 prisoners is highest among U.S. (in 2014, 2.75 in state prisons and 1.4 in local jails[28]), Australia (1.8 in 2018[29]) and England and Wales (3.62[30] in 2019).

A study conducted in 24 high income countries (Europe and North America) found that the annual suicide rate per 100,000 prisoners was highest at 180 in Norway, followed by 176 and 165 in France and Iceland respectively and lowest in Croatia at 10, followed by 24 in Poland and 23 in U.S.[31] India’s prison suicide rate per 100,000 at 28[32] is at the lower end of the spectrum however it is higher than India’s general suicide rate of 16.3 per 100,000 population.[33]


Nelson Mandela famously said, ‘The way that a society treats its prisoners is one of the sharpest reflections of its character’. Prison conditions and the state of prisoners reflect a state’s commitment to human rights. Indian constitutional courts have often observed that it is the state’s duty to protect the rights of prisoners as incarceration is only a curtailment of right to free movement and all other rights, most importantly the right to dignity and life, remain intact. However, prison statistics, both global and in India, indicate that prisoners continue to remain an extremely vulnerable population across the world.

It is a state’s sovereign duty to ensure that the prisoners’ rights are protected and incarceration is used sparingly and strictly proportional to the cause of justice in each case. This necessitates that states must not only proactively disclose information related to prisons and prisoners, but also regularly evaluate their prison systems based on these statistics, and formulate policies to reduce imprisonment rates, overcrowding and ensure that rights of prisoners are protected.

Further, increased incarceration rates can also be linked to increased criminalisation of poverty as the poor often remain oblivious of legal protections and safeguards against unnecessary and prolonged detentions. In 2010, the UN recommended that member states should endeavour to reduce pretrial detention, where appropriate, and promote increased access to justice and legal defence mechanisms.[34] In 2012, the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, provided several guidelines for ensuring effective state funded legal representation for pre-trial detainees. Therefore, it is imperative that policy interventions on addressing prison issues must also focus on enhancing the quality, capacity and scope of free legal services.

[2] Ibid.

[3]India’s total prison population in 2000 was 272,079 and in 2018 it rose to 466,084.




[10]Supra note 1.

[11]Supra note 4.

[12]India’s prison population increased by 13.1% in last six years (2018-2013). Supra note 4.

[13]Not all the persons arrested are sent to prisons however, it is an important indicator to assess the increase in prison population.

[15]Supra note 1.

[16]Supra note 1.

[18]Supra note 5.

[20]Supra note 8.

[21]Supra note 5.

[22]Supra note 8.

[23]Supra note 8.

[24]Supra note. 8.

[27]Supre note 8.

[32]Supra note 8.

[34]Salvador Declaration on Comprehensive Strategies for Global Challenges: Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Systems and Their Development in a Changing World 2010. 

This article was published in the ILAG newsletter. To download the complete newsletter click here.