Open Prisons: Do the guilty deserve better alternatives?

Open Prisons: Do the guilty deserve better alternatives?

Law | May 19, 2018 / by Shrey Som
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Prisons in a basic sense are spaces where we believe that wrongdoers would be punished for their transgressions against the law. These people who are proven to be guilty are ‘imprisoned’, since they pose a threat to society and are thus isolated, in hyper secure buildings under strict rules and round the clock guards. However, is this form of punishment beneficial to society? Does keeping a convict under such conditions guarantee that they will start following societal laws?  What then should be the aim of imprisonment as a form of punishment?

Evidence suggests that in ancient cultures (Babylon, Sumerian, Indian, Egyptian) the concept of ‘Justice’ and ‘Punishment’ towards the felon was centered on the philistine principles of ‘Retaliation’ and ‘Vengeance’ often carried out by the victims or their kin. Punishment through fixed and specific periods of confinement is a fairly modern concept; the earlier idea of detainment was to either induce a fine or to hold the person for further punishment (banishment, execution).[1] As legal rules became more systematized, Plato’s dictum that a person under detention, ‘should emerge a better man, or failing that, less of a wretch’, was followed and supported by modern prison reform activists.[2]The basic idea and mission of a correctional system in today’s world, is to reduce relapse into criminal activities and to promote long-term public safety.

The retribution system of criminal justice is the most common and favored system around the globe. It’s fundamental working principles being ‘retribution’ and ‘repentance’ through hard, slave-like labor. The idea of ‘rigorous imprisonment’ in India is a reflection of the retribution system. However, in the late 1770’s many prison reform activists, mainly John Howard, began questioning the success rate of the ‘retribution’ system. They suggested the alternative ‘restorative’ model of prison system that promoted cohesiveness and social re-integration along with personal rehabilitation. Open prisons are a direct result of such ideologies in action.

Open Prisons are very different from normal everyday prisons in their basic functioning and goals. The administration and organization of an open prison are done completely by the inmates, who form a council (panchayat) to delegate the various workings of the prison. Prisoners are not restricted by walls and have a fixed perimeter of city area to wander to for work, recreation and exploration with strict curfews in place. The rules are strict but the emphasis is on ‘self-discipline’ as the inmates are given a good amount of autonomy with a limited number of guards to supervise. The goal is that inmates would find work that befits their skills, which in turn allows them a greater chance for rehabilitation and social reintegration. One example is the successful open prison in Rajasthan through which inmates are enriching the society with their various skills (for e.g. An inmate who is a homeopathic doctor cures the ailments of the villagers while another inmate has started work as a contractor and is doing good business in the district).[3] Thus, an open prison provides for the society by encouraging and empowering inmates towards productive labor.

The Supreme Court of India notes in Re: Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons that, “The suggestion given by the learned Amicus of encouraging the establishment of ‘open jails’ or ‘open prisons’ is certainly worth considering. It was brought to our notice that the experiment in Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) and the semi- open prison in Delhi are extremely successful and need to be carefully studied. Perhaps there might be equally successful experiments carried out in other States as well and, if so, they require to be documented, studied and emulated[4]Furthermore, the Supreme Court in a further hearing this month urged that the, ‘State Governments concerned to not only try and utilize the existing capacity of these open prisons and if necessary increase the existing capacity of these open prisons in due course of time’.[5]According to Smita Chakraburrthy, a prison reform activist and author of the study, ‘Open Prisons of Rajasthan’, the aforementioned directives are a huge step towards a productive criminal reform system in the country.

However, is it safe for a convicted felon to be given such freedom of movement and liberty? Won’t this lead to inmates breaking out of prison? However, a few studies have proven the opposite to be true, there are but a few escape attempts in an open prison facility and that number is negligible when compared to a conservative prison. Psychologists argue that, this is due to the idea of reform and self-discipline cultivated in a person who is trying to regret his or her mistakes. Inmates know that if they escape and get caught, then their chance at being sent to an open prison would be lost forever. Moreover, the environment and society of an open prison is very different from the regressive, rigorous and somber mood of a normal correctional facility.[6],[7] These factors combined with the opportunity of familial and work proximity tends to minimize the idea of escape in inmates.

The pivotal part about open prisons is that they ensure a reformative prison system while reducing the costs to the state. The study ‘Open Prisons of Rajasthan’, has found that a normal prison costs the state '78’ times more to maintain than an open prison. The recent Supreme Court directive and great success of ‘open prisons’ in Shimla and Rajasthan, it seems that the criminal justice system in India will soon see a positive change. Thus, the guilty do deserve a better chance and they can take that opportunity to serve society as well, but only if we provide them with the institution and trust of ‘open prisons’.



[1]Welch, Michael (2011). "A Social History of Punishment and Corrections". Corrections: A Critical Approach. 

[2]Roth, Michael P. (2006). Prisons and Prison Systems: A Global Encyclopedia.Greenwood Publishing. 

[3]Bhatnagar, Gaurav (2017, November 27). Should Rajasthan's Open Prisons Be Replicated Across the Country? The Wire. Retrieved from

[4]Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons vs. State of Assam, SC W.P. (Civil) No. 406 of 2013 and I.A. No. 68248 of 2017. 

[5] ibid.

[6]Chen, M. Shapiro, Jesse; Do Harsher Prison Conditions Reduce Recidivism? A Discontinuity-based Approach (2007, June), American Law and Economics Review, Volume 9, Issue 1, Pages 1-29,

[7]Ghosh, Shubhra (1992). Open Prisons and the Inmates: A Socio-psychological Study. Mittal Publications. 


  • Andrews, D. A., Bonta, J. (2010, September). The Psychology of Criminal Conduct. (5th). Routledge Publications.
  • Chakraburrty, S. (2017, November 26). “The Open Prisons of Rajasthan”. Rajasthan State Legal Services Authority.
  • Wright, M. (2008). Making Good: Prisons, Punishment and Beyond. (Revised Ed.)Waterside Press.

Header Image Source: The Indian Express



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Written By Shrey Som

Law and Political Science.

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