If simply put, handoff doctrine means that the courts shall not interfere in the work of executive, this doctrine developed in America. In India, this came for consideration in Sunil Batra[1](I) When two writ petitions were filed to the supreme court against the prison torture but as this doctrine was also abandoned in America, Indian supreme Court did not accept such doctrine that denied the interfere of Courts when someone’s rights violating continually.

Analysis of the doctrine

In Donnel Douglas v. Maurice H. Sigler, it was put down that[2].

“The Matter of internal management of prisons or correctional institutions is vested in and rests with the hands of those institutions operating under statutory authority and their acts and administration of prison discipline and over all operation of the institution are not subject to court super vision or control absent most- unusual circumstances or absent a violation or a constitutional right.”

But Corwin notes[3]

“Federal courts have intensified their oversight of State penal facilities, reflecting a heightened concern with the extent to which the ills that plague so-called correctional institution-overcrowding, understaffing. unsanitary facilities, brutality, constant fear of violence, lack of adequate medical and mental health care, poor food service, intrusive correspondence restrictions, inhumane isolation, segregation, inadequate or non-existent rehabilitative and/or educational programs, deficient recreational opportunities-violate the Eight Amendment ban on ”cruel and unusual punishments.”

Origin of the doctrine

The hands-off’ doctrine is based on the fallacious foundation stated in 1871 in Ruffin v. Commonwealth:

“He has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except these which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being, the slave of the State.”

During the century that followed, the American courts have whittled away at the doctrine and firstly declared in Jordan[4] that when the responsible prison authorities have abandoned elemental concepts of decency by permitting conditions to prevail of a shocking and debased nature, the courts must intervene promptly to restore the primal rules of a civilized community ill accord with the mandate of the Constitution of the United States.

In Coffin V. Richard the court was persuaded to intervene when, while lawfully in custody a prisoner is deprived of some right the loss of which makes his imprisonment more burdensome than the law permits:

“When a man, possesses a substantial right, the Courts will be diligent in finding a way to protect it. The fact that a person is legally in prison does not prevent the use of habeas corpus to protect his other inherent rights.

In John v. Dys, the (Court again held it preferable “that a potentially dangerous individual be set free than the least degree of and impairment of an individual’s basic constitutional rights be permitted. Thus, the constitutionally of imprisonment, its duration, and conditions Can be validity tested by means of habeas corpus.

Development of the doctrine

By l 975, the United States Supreme Court sustained the indubitable proposition that constitutional rights did not desert convicts but dwindled in scope.

A few sharp passages from Eve Pall[5] opinions and some telling observations from Charles Wolff[6] nail the argument the prisoners the nonpersons. Mr. Justice Steward. who delivered the opinion of the Court in Eve Pell observed:

“Courts cannot, of course, abdicate their constitutional responsibility to delineate and protect fundamental liberties. But when the issue involves a regulation limiting one of several means of communication by an inmate, the institutional objectives furthered by that regulation and the measure of judicial deference owed to corrections officials in their attempt to serve these interests are relevant in gauging the validity of the regulation.”

Mr. Justice Douglas. in his dissenting view, stated:

‘prisoners are still ‘persons’ entitled to all constitutional rights unless their liberty has been constitutional by curtailed by procedures that satisfy all the requirements of due process.”

In the later case of Charles Wolff, the court made emphatic statements driving home the same point. For instance, Mr. Justice White, who spoke for the court, observed:

“Lawful imprisonment necessarily makes unavailable many rights and privileges of the ordinary citizen retraction in by the considerations underlying our penal system. But though his rights may be diminished by environment, prisoner is not wholly stripped of constitutional protections when he is imprisoned for crime. There is no iron Curtain drawn between the Constitutions and the prisons of this country.”

In sum there must be mutual accommodation between institutional needs and objectives and the provisions of the Constitution that are of general application. Mr. Justice Marshall expressed himself explicitly,

“I have previously stated my view that a prisoner does not shed his basic constitutional rights at the prison Gate, and I fully support the court’s holding that the interest of inmates is freedom from imposition of serious discipline is a liberty’ entitled to due process protection.”

Mr. Justice Douglas, again a dissenter, asserted:

“Every prisoner’s liberty i.e., of course, circumscribed by the very fact of his confinement, but his interest in the limited liberty left to him is then only the more substantial. Conviction of a crime does not render one a nonperson whose rights are subject to the within of the prison administration, and therefore, the imposition of any serious punishment within the prison system requires procedural safeguards of course, a bearing need not be held before a prisoner is subjected to some minor deprivation, such as an evening’s loss of television privileges. Placement in solitary confinement, however, is not in that category”.


Disciplinary autonomy, in the hands of mayhem- happy jail staffers, may harry human rights and the walls from behind the high walls will not easily break through the sound- proof, night-proof barrier to awaken the judges’ writ juris- diction. So, it follows that activist legal aid as a pipeline to carry to the court the breaches of prisoners’ basic rights a radical humanist concomitant of the rule of prison law.

And in our constitutional order it is axiomatic that the prison laws do not swallow up the fundamental rights of the legally unfree, and, as sentinels on the qui vive, courts will guard Freedom behind bars, tampered, of course, by environmental realism but intolerant of torture by executive echelons. The policy of the law and the paramountcy of the constitution are beyond purchase by authoritarians glibly invoking ‘dangerousness’ of inmates and peace in prisons. If judicial realism is not to be jettisoned, judicial activism must censor the argument of unaccountable prison autonomy.[7]

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

[2] Federal Reporter 2d. Series, Vol. 386, p. 684; Donnel Douglas v. Maurice H. Sigler.

[3] Supplement to Edward S. Corwin’s. The Constitution p. 245.

[4] 257 Fed. Suppl. 674 Jordan l. Fitzharris (N. D. Cal. 1966)

[5] 417 US 817 41 Ed. 2d 495

[6] 41 L. Ed. 2d. 935

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