Subjecting a prisoner to the demonstrated risk of the loss of his sanity as punishment for any offence in prison is plainly cruel and unusual punishment as judged by present standards of decency. What is of considerable interest is the observation on procedural due process which in our country has its counterpart in Article 21, as expounded in Maneka Gandhi.

What is due process of law?

The American Judge observed in Sostre’s case[1], the Supreme Court reiterated the firmly established due process principles that,

  • where governmental action may seriously injure an individual and the reasonableness of that action depends on fact findings, the evidence used to prove the governments case must be disclosed to the individual so that he has an opportunity to show that it is untrue.
  • The individual also have the right to retain counsel.
  • The decision makers should state the reasons for the determination and indicate the evidence upon which he relied.
  • Finally, in such cases, the high court ruled, an impartial decision-maker is essential.

The Court holds that plaintiff was, in effect, ‘sentenced’ to more than a year in punitive segregation without the minimal procedural drastic punishment upon a prisoner.”

Why it is called Due process of law?

The U.S. District Court in Sostre had this to say:

“The difficult question, as always, is that process was due.”

Due process in Prison Setting

The Supreme Court of the United states in Wolf v. McDonnell[2], considered the question of due process and prison disciplinary hearing, confrontation and cross- examination and even presence of counsel. Mr. Justice White, speaking for the majority, struck the balance that the due process clause demanded and insisted:

“We hold that written notice of the charges must be given to the disciplinary-action defendant in order to inform him of the charges and to enable him to marshal the facts and prepare a defence. At least a brief period of time after the notice, no less than 24 hours, should be allowed to the inmate to prepare for the appearance before the Adjustment Committee. We also hold that there must be a “written statement by the fact-finders as to the evidence relied on and reasons`’ for the disciplinary action.

Written records of proceedings will thus protect the inmate against collateral consequences based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the original proceeding.

Further, as to the disciplinary action itself, the provision for a written record helps to insure that administrators, faced with possible scrutiny by state officials and the public, and perhaps even the courts, where fundamental constitutional rights may have been abridged, will act fairly.

Without written records, the inmate will be at a severe disadvantage in propounding his own cause to or defending himself from others. lt may be that there will be occasions when personal or institutional safety are so implicated, that the statement may properly exclude certain items of evidence, but in that event the statement should indicate the fact of the omission. Otherwise, we perceive no conceivable rehabilitative objective or prospect of prison disruption that can flow from the requirement of these statements. We are also of the opinion that the inmate facing disciplinary proceedings should be allowed to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in the defence when permitting him to do so will not be unduly hazardous to institutional safety or correctional goals”

Mr. Justice Marshall went much farther than the majority and observed: “… by far the greater weight of correctional authority is that greater procedural fairness in disciplinary proceedings, including permitting confrontation and cross-examination, would enhance rather than impair the disciplinary process as a rehabilitative tool. Time has proved … that blind deference to correctional officials does no real service to them.

Judicial concern with procedural regularity has a direct hearing upon the maintenance of institutional order; the orderly care with which decisions are made by the prison authority is intimately related to the level of respect with which prisoners regard that authority. There is nothing more corrosive to the fabric of a public institution such as a prison than a feeling among those whom it contains that they are being treated unfairly.”

Fair process of law required before condemnation

The substance of these decisions is that ‘a prisoner is not temporarily a slave of the State and is entitled to the fair process of law before condemnation to solitary confinement. The U.S. Judges generally have refused to accept arbitrary or capricious discipline in jail administration.

“We would not lightly condone the absence of such basic safeguards against arbitrariness as adequate notice, an opportunity for the prisoner to reply to charges lodged against him, and a reasonable investigation into the substantial discipline.” (Sostre V. Rockefeller[3])

Indian Courts accepting the doctrine the of due process of law in Indian Prison Setting

The goals of prison keeping, especially if it is mere safe keeping, can be attained without requiring a prisoner to live in the exacerbated conditions of bare floor solitude. Functionally speaking, the court has a distinctive duty to reform prison practices and to inject constitutional consciousness into the system.

The challenge of prison reform is too compelling for courts to decline to exercise their inherent power to protect the constitutional rights of the incarcerated. Affording such protection demands that courts do more than merely invalidate specific practices; it demands that they confront the institution of prison as a whole. The totality of conditions approach and the purposive model of analysis afford framework for this confrontation.

Moreover, prison officials may welcome judicial intervention, because it enables them to initiate reforms that are politically and financially costly. Studies have demonstrated that one by-product to totality of conditions prison cases is that they sensitized both the public and prison officials to the need for prison reform. As a result, progressive prison authorities and humanitarian citizens’ groups are able to take advantage of this increased sensitivity to advocate reform.


Sunil Batra Etc. vs Delhi Administration; 1978 AIR 1675, 1979 SCR (1) 392

[1] Sostre v. Rockfeller; 312 F. Suppl. 863 (1970). 

[2] 41 L. Ed. 2d p. 935

[3] 312 F. SUPDI. 863 (1970).