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Official Website of West Bengal Correctional Services, India - Development of Prison

History and Development of Prisons with Special reference to West Bengal

Based on the research work done by Jacob P Alei, Post Graduate (LLM) Student,
The WB National University of Juridical Sciences, Calcutta Akhil Kumar,
a student of National Law School of India University, Bangalore

Historical Backdrop

The historical account of jails in our country can be traced back to the Epic age. In Ramayana, when Bharata saw Rama at Chitrakut, the latter, while making detailed inquiry about the state of polity and welfare of people of Ayodhya, did not forget to elicit the situation in jail there. References of jail are also there in the Mahabharata. In those mythological period there were eighteen important state officials and one of them was the bead of the institution of jail (karagriha) designated as kamyadhyrrkrkcr". In Manusmriti it is stated that "(the King) should have all the prisons built on the royal highway, where the suffering and mutilated evil doers can be seen".

There were also horrific punishments like feeding to animals, mutilations etc. We have locked up people in our country (in dungeons and cellars) to get them out of sight and often to await some other punishment such as banishing, ostracizing, and death, this includes the locking up of Lord Krishna's parents in a dungeon in Mathura where Lord Krishna was born. The Archeological Survey of India has found the jail in which Ajatasatru confined his father, Bimbisara at Rajgriha, the capital of Magadha- the modem Bihar). The pre-Buddhist jails were said to be very cruel. Here, the inmates were, kept in chains and under heavy loads. Whipping was a daily routine in these jails. Account of Ashoka's Naraka (hell) was included in the writings of Huien Tsang and Fa-Hien Polished treatment of prisoners was unknown in this period. During Muslim period, old forts and castles served the purpose of regular prisons. These prisons were not as cruel as the pre Buddhist prisons.

Development of the Prison System

Until the late 18th century, prisons were used mainly for the confinement of debtors who could not meet their obligations, of accused persons waiting to be tried, and of convicts who were waiting for their sentences--either death or banishment--to be put into effect. But imprisonment gradually came to be accepted not only as a device for holding these persons but also as a means of punishing convicted criminals. During the 16th century a number of houses of correction were established in England and on the continent for the reform of minor offenders. The main emphasis was on strict discipline and hard labour. The unsanitary conditions and lack of provisions for the welfare of the inmates in these houses of correction soon produced widespread agitation for further changes in methods of handling criminals.

Solitary confinement of criminals became an ideal among the rationalist reformers of the 18th century, who believed that solitude would help the offender to become penitent and that penitence would result in reformation. This idea was first tried out in the United States, at Eastern State Penitentiary, which was opened on Cherry Hill in Philadelphia in 1829. Each prisoner of this institution remained in his cell or its adjoining yard, working alone at trades such as weaving, carpentry, or shoemaking, and saw no one except the officers of the institution and an occasional visitor from outside. This method of prison management, known as the "separate system," became a model for penal institutions constructed in several other U.S. states and throughout much of Europe.