The Supreme Court in the judgments Charles Sobraj case and both of Sunil batra cases, on being approached either through formal writ petitions or by addressing letters, which was treated as a writ petitions, had laid bare the constitutional dimension and rights available to a person behind stone wails and iron bars.
However, these were not the only decisions on the question of rights of prisoners and approach to be adopted while dealing with them as there are many other renderings of Supreme Court which deal with some other aspects of prison justice.
A brief resume of earlier decisions would be helpful to tread the path further. The resume reveals this:
State of Maharashtra v. Prabhakar, AIR 1966 SC 424
In this case, aid of Article 21 was made available perhaps for the first time to a prisoner while dealing with the question of his right of reading and writing books while in jail.
Bhuvan Mohan Pattnaik v. State of Andhra Pradesh, AIR 1974 SC 2092
A challenge was made to the segregation of prisoners in this case and a three Judge bench stated that resort to oppressive measures to cub political beliefs (the prisoner was a Naxalite because of which he was put in a `quarantine’ and subjected to inhuman treatment) could not be permitted. The Court, however, opined that a prisoner could not complain of installation of high-volt live wire mechanism on the jail walls to prevent escape from prisons, as no prisoner had fundamental right to escape from lawful custody.
Charles Sobraj v. Superintendent Central Jail, Tihar, AIR 1978 SC 1514
In Charles Sobraj it was stated that this Court would intervene even in prison administration when constitutional rights or statutory prescriptions are transgressed to the injury of a poisoner. In that case the complaint was against incarceratary torture.
Sunil Batra (1) v. Delhi Administration and Ors., AIR 1978 SC 1675
Sunil Batra (I) dealt with the question whether prisoners are entitled to all constitutional rights, apart from fundamental rights. In that case this Court was called upon to decide as to when solitary confinement could be imposed on a prisoner.
In Kishor Singh v. State of Rajasthan, AIR 1981 SC 2625 also the Court dealt with the parameters of solitary confinement.
Prem Shankar v. Delhi Administration, AIR 1980 SC 1535; and Kadra Pahadiya v. State of Bihar, AIR 1981 SC 959
In this case, Supreme Court prohibited putting of undertrial prisoners in leg-irons.
Sunil Batra (II) v. Delhi Administration, AIR 1980 SC 1579
In Sunil Batra (II) the Court was called upon the deal with prison vices and the judgment protected the prisoners from these vices with the shield of Article 21, Krishna Iyer. J. Stated that “prisons are built with the stones of law“.
Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi AIR 1981 SC 746
In this case, a challenge was made to a prison rule which permitted only one interview in a month with the members of the family or legal advisor in and the rule was held violative, inter alia, of Article 21.
RD Upadhyay v. State of Andhra Pradesh. 1996 (3) SCC 422; and “Common Cause” v. Union of India, 1996 (4) SCC 33.
The first of these cases dealt with undertrial prisoners lodged in Tihar jail and directions were given to release them on bail depending upon the type of offences alleged against them on the completion of period mentioned in the judgment. The second case is more general inasmuch as it dealt with undertrial prisoners lodged in various jails of the country. The bench directed for their release on conditions laid down in the order. It was stated that directions shall be valid in all the States in Union Territories and would apply not only to pending cases but also to future cases. The directions were, however, not made applicable to certain classes of cases mentioned in the order.
In series of cases, to wit, Veena Sethi v. State of Bihar, AIR 1983 SC 339, Sant Bir v. State of Bihar, AIR 1982 SC 1470, and Sheela Barse v. Union Territory, 1993 (4) SCC 204, this Court was called upon the decide as to when an insane person can be detained in a prison. In Sheela Barse, reformative aspect was emphasised by stating that the State has to rehabilitate rather than avenge.
Krishna Iyer, J., speaking for a Two-Judge bench, pointed out that the “sub-culture that leads to anti-social behaviour has to be countered not by undue cruelty but by re-culturalisation“.
On top of all, there is the undoubted right of speedy trial of undertrial prisoners, as held in a catena of cases of this Court.
Conclusion: A pragmatic balanced approach towards prisoners
Constitutional rights of the prisoners shall have to be interpreted in such a way that larger public interest does not suffer while trying to be soft and considerate towards the prisoners. For this, it has to be seen that more injury than is necessary is not caused to a prisoner. At the same time efforts have to be made to reform him so that when he comes out of prison he is a better citizen and not a hardened criminal.
The journey which commenced in 1966 has thus, planted many milestones. But it seems there are vet promises to keep and miles to go before one can sleep.
 Shri Rama Murthy vs State Of Karnataka (1996)
 Charles Sobraj v. Superintendent Central Jail, Tihar, AIR 1978 SC 1514
 Sunil Batra (1) v. Delhi Administration and Ors., AIR 1978 SC 1675 and
Sunil Batra (II) v. Delhi Administration, AIR 1980 SC 1579,