Constitutional Riddle in Solitary Confinement

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

A famous quote by Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who himself spent twenty-seven years of his life inside the prison. In India, there are various Punishments adjudicated by the courts, but solitary confinement is one such extreme punishment.  The Supreme Court of India defines solitary confinement as one of such punishments distinguished by living in single cells which isolates the convicts from communication and sight of other mates. Under this form of punishment, a prisoner is secluded from any human contact.

Though the method of solitary confinement was established to bring up positive changes in the behaviour of prisoners, despite it negatively reflected more. Under solitary confinement, isolating prisoners in separate cells reported causing in high rates of mental disruption, physical incapability, hypertension, headaches and migraines, profuse sweating, and heart palpitations. Moreover, many prisoners suffer drastic weight loss due to digestion complications and abdominal pain. Such confinements also caused severe mental disorders such as Ganser syndrome, insomnia, increased visual and increased risk of suicide among prisoners. If solitary confinement is a revolt against society’s good spirit, then there is no reason to permit a similar punishment to be smuggled into the prison system by naming it differently.

Solitary Confinement under the Indian Penal Code

Section 73 and 74 of the Indian Penal Code defines solitary confinement and its limitations.

IPC, Section 73

Section 73 states, “Whenever any person is convicted of an offence for which under this Code the Court has the power to sentence him to rigorous imprisonment, the Court may, by its sentence, order that the offender shall be kept in solitary confinement for any portion or portions of the imprisonment to which he is sen­tenced, not exceeding three months in the whole, according to the following scale, that is to say—

  • a time not exceeding one month if the term of imprisonment shall not exceed six months;
  • a time not exceeding two months if the term of imprisonment shall exceed six months and [shall not exceed one] year;
  • a time not exceeding three months if the term of imprisonment shall exceed one year.”[1]

Explanation: According to this section the Court may put the offender in isolation in the course of his imprisonment period for any offence committed under this code and the isolation period may not exceed three months in a whole, according to the following scale:

  • If the imprisonment does not exceed six months, then the solitary confinement span is restricted to one month.
  •  If the imprisonment exceeds six months, then the solitary confinement span is restricted to two months.
  • If the imprisonment exceeds one year, then the solitary confinement span is restricted to three months.

Types of Imprisonment

Imprisonment under IPC is of two kinds:

  1. Simple imprisonment
  2. Rigorous imprisonment

Simple imprisonment means lodging individuals inside the jail with only moderate duties, and such individuals are not required to do hard labour. It also involves dines and imprisonment for a short time. Prisoners sentenced to simple imprisonment are assigned work only based on their request and following their physical fitness. Therefore, by the very nature of the solitary confinement, it does not come under simple imprisonment.

Rigorous imprisonment, by definition, means hard labour. Hard labour is not defined either in the IPC or in the Jail Manuals. During this punishment, the convicted individuals are provided with minimum wages for the hard labour he did in jail. Hence, it is quite apparent that the courts can inflict solitary confinement only to individuals convicted under rigorous imprisonment.

IPC, Section 74

Section 74 of IPC states, “In executing a sentence of solitary confinement, such confinement shall in no case exceed fourteen days at a time, with intervals between the periods of solitary confinement of not less duration than such periods; and when the imprisonment awarded shall exceed three months, the solitary confinement shall not exceed seven days in any one month of the whole imprisonment awarded, with intervals between the periods of solitary confinement of not less duration than such periods.”[2]

Explanation: While executing the sentence of solitary confinement, the confinement period will not be given continuously but with intervals. Such confinement shall not exceed Fourteen days at a time, and if the imprisonment period exceeds three months, then the confinement period is given with an interval of seven days.

Origin of Solitary Confinement

The first check of solitary confinement can be traced back in the year 1829, within the United States (US) at the Eastern State of Penitentiary. It was brought into practice by the Quakers Community (a spiritual community) in Pennsylvania. They supported a Quaker belief that prisoners isolated International Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics Special Issue 864 in stone cells with only a Bible would use the time to regret on their acts and realize their faults and mistakes. However, many of the prisoners go insane, commit suicide, or not able to manage in the community, and also the following is gradually abandoned throughout the forthcoming years.

The experiment by the Quakers community eventually got failed, after that, solitary confinement was again practised at ALCATRAZ, where the most problematic detainees where isolated in a separate block. The practise of solitary confinement remained out of the common, until 1983, when two correction officers, in separate events, on the same day were executed by the prisoners, at Illinois’ Marion Federal Prison. Thus, Marion was America’s first supermax prison, where all prisoners were kept inside the jail for 23 hours a day due to this event.

Thus, gradually the practice of solitary confinement was established all around the world.

Solitary Confinement and Its Impact on Prisoners

There have been several instances where prisoners are released to the streets directly after their isolation of years in jail. Various studies had revealed the physiological outcomes of the solitary confinement, which can produce the symptoms, such as:

  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Mental disruption
  • Physical incapability
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Hypersensitivity to noise and touch
  • Insomnia
  • Drastic weight loss due to digestion complications and abdominal pain
  • Uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear
  • Increased risk of suicide.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Prison isolation correctly resembles with that of torture as stated in several international human rights conditions and thus leads to infringement of Human Rights. The United Nations Convention defines the expression torture as a sort of the state-punishment act ―by which intractable pain or distress, whether mentally or physically, is deliberately inflicted on an individual for information, punishment, or intimidation. Even as a prisoner, they do have fundamental rights and basic human rights that are being violated by solitary confinement.

Indian landmark cases referring solitary confinement

In the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, one of the prisoners filed a petition who was under a death sentence. In his letter, he alleged that the Jail warden had pierced a baton into the anus of his inmate who is serving for life imprisonment in the same jail. The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that no solitary confinement or any hard labour should be inflicted without the judicial appraisal of the session Judge. Therefore, in Sunil Batra’s case, solitary confinement was given validity[3]. Further, in the case of Kishore Singh Ravinder Dev v. the State of Rajasthan, the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that only in exceptional circumstances the prisoners could be kept in solitary confinement. The Court also observed that to keep prisoners into isolation for eight to eleven months is itself barbarous and torturous and would amount to a violation of the law.[4]

Furthermore, in the case of Unni Krishnan & Ors v. State of Andhra Pradesh, the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that that right against solitary confinement is one of the rights that fall under Article 21 enshrined under the Constitution of India[5].

The debate over the legitimacy of solitary confinement can be considered as old as the solitary confinement itself. Advocates in favour of its abolition say that it is inhuman, brutal and the most torturous punishment as it infringes both human and fundamental rights. So, in the light of its increasing trend towards its end, the Uttarakhand government delivered a judgment and held to keep the prisoners in solitary confinement before the exhaustion of his Legal, Constitutional and Fundamental Rights. The Court observed that solitary confinement is not a part of the punishment, but it amounts to additional punishment adopted by the jail authorities. In this case, the Hon’ble Court abolished this practice and held it unconstitutional. The Court was also of the opinion that the prisoner can be kept in solitary confinement but for a short period.[6]

The detainees, although they are imprisoned, their fundamental rights are not whisked off entirely even though some of their rights such as right practice any profession is taken away. Chandrachud J. observed “Convicts are not, by mere reason of the conviction, denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise possess. A compulsion under the authority of law, following upon a conviction, to live in a prison-house entails to by its force the deprivation of fundamental freedoms like the right to move freely throughout the territory of India or the right to “practise” a profession. A man of profession would thus stand stripped of his right to hold consultations while serving out his sentence. However, the Constitution of India also guarantees other freedoms such as the right to acquire, hold and dispose of the property for the exercise of which incarceration can be no impediment.”[7] Henceforth, the fundamental rights of the prisoners are not taken away entirely, and the rights such as Article 14 and 21 applies to prisoners too.


Every citizen have a right to life with dignity, and the life of its citizen is the essential thing for a state, and though the prisoners might have perpetrated an offence still, they have the right to be treated with dignity. Instead of that, inhuman treatment is being done to the prisoners, they are also subjected to mental torture, and they are in no way treated as a human being inside the prison. Human right organizations have all asked its people to discourage the practice of solitary confinement and to be exercised only when it is necessary to do so and that too for a short term only. If punishment such as solitary confinement is exercised, the object of punishment would not be achieved; instead of that, the convicts might be triggered to do multiple crimes as they start to encounter suicidal feelings and other traumatic thoughts when they are in isolation for almost for 22 hours a day in prisons.

Convicts under solitary confinement are not even be permitted to do labour or to interact with anyone. They might undergo severe mental dysfunctions while the prisoners do not deserve such inhuman, brutal and cruel punishment. Since section 73 of the Indian Penal Code infringes Article 14, 19, 21 of the Constitution of India and it has all the more reason to be struck down unconstitutional.

[1] Section 73 of the Indian Penal Code.

[2] Section 74 of the Indian Penal Code.

[3] Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, A.I.R. 1980 S.C. 1579.

[4] Kishore Singh Ravinder Dev v. the State of Rajasthan, A.I.R. 1981 S.C. 625. 

[5] Unni Krishnan & Ors v. State of Andhra Pradesh A.I.R. 1993 S.C. 217.

[6] State of Uttarakhand v Mehtab & ors, Criminal Appeal Nos. 49 and 60 of 2014.

[7] D. Bhuvan Mohan Patnaik v. State of Andhra Pradesh, A.I.R. 1974 S.C. 2092.

Mohit Nautiyal from Law College Dehradun

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