Custodial Deaths: A Violation of the Rights of the Incarcerated

Custodial Deaths A Violation of the Rights of the Incarcerated

One of the most essential functions of incarcerating criminals is reformation.[i] This can be achieved only in a peaceful and safe prison environment, where the prisoners have the time to reflect upon their wrongful deeds. Sadly, the rise in the number of custodial death cases[ii] is an indicator of how the detention system has backfired.

Police, who are responsible for ensuring the safety of the inmates inside prisons, end up endangering their lives. The situation becomes worse when society at large starts accepting (and often glorifying) cases of custodial violence and custodial deaths. This is evident from the widespread praise which the Hyderabad cops received when they killed four accused in a rape and murder case, supposedly in self-defence.[iii]

This article was submitted by Urja Vashishth, 2nd Year, B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) Maharashtra National Law University.

No matter how grave the crime, even a criminal has the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, which could be taken only by the courts following the due process laid down by law. This article will focus on analysing the legal rights guaranteed to the incarcerated and getting an understanding of violation of those rights in cases of custodial deaths.

Legal Rights of the Incarcerated

Constitutional Rights

Article 20 (Protection in respect of conviction of offences), Article 22 (Protection against arrest and detention in some instances), et al. are some of the constitutional provisions exclusively dealing with the rights of the incarcerated and the rights of those under a reasonable apprehension of the arrest.

Additionally, through judicial pronouncements, all fundamental rights (within reasonable restrictions, on account of their imprisonment) have been extended to prisoners in the landmark case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration.[iv] As VR Krishna Iyer, J. rightly said, “Part III of the Constitution does not part company with the prisoner at the gates, and judicial oversight protects the prisoner’s shrunken fundamental rights, if flouted, frowned upon, or frozen by the prison authority.”[v]

Other Legal Rights

Certain other legal rights of the prisoners like the right to clean surroundings, the right to quality medical care, the right to treatment of physical and mental illnesses, etc. have been given under various legislations like the Prisons Act, 1894, the Prisons (Medical Tests) Amendment Act, 1990, et al.

A prisoner does not cease to be a human just because of their imprisonment. Hence, all human rights (within reasonable restrictions due to their imprisonment) are also available to the incarcerated.[vi]

The following sections will deal with the violation of the fundamental right to life of prisoners.

Recent Cases of Custodial Deaths

Jayaraj and Fenix

One of the most heart-wrenching cases of custodial death in recent times is Jayaraj and Fenix, father-son who had been arrested for violating COVID protocols. According to eyewitnesses, the duo had been brutally tortured by the police and was bleeding all over.[vii]

Their death led to widespread protests and social media outrage, demanding punishment for the perpetrators and greater police accountability.[viii] On the backdrop of the case, a writ petition has been filed in the Supreme Court seeking guidelines to suppress custodial deaths, as well as the practical implementation of existing guidelines (set out in Prakash Singh v. Union of India and D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal).[ix]

What makes this case all the more egregious is the way the Tamil Nadu police abused their power and tried to cover up the despicable and illegal acts of their “brothers.”[x] This will be covered in greater detail in later sections.

Hyderabad Killing of Rape and Murder Accused

On December 6, 2019, the Hyderabad police shot down four men accused in a rape and murder case, supposedly in self-defence. As already stated, they garnered praise and support from the masses.[xi]

There is no denying the fact that the men were involved in a heinous act,[xii] which would have resulted in them being imprisoned for at least ten years[xiii] in case they were found guilty in the court of law. However, this does not justify the extra-judicial killing of the accused. This, being hailed as justice being served, is all the more concerning.

The Supreme Court has ordered an independent probe into the alleged encounter.[xiv]

Similarities between the above mentioned two Cases

Prima facie, the two cases appear to be quite different, with one dealing with the custodial torture and death of two innocent shop owners, and the other with the ‘encounter’ of those accused in a brutal gang rape and murder case. What is common in both cases is the police overstepping their boundaries.

In a democratic country, with arguably one of the most robust judicial systems in the world, people need to be wary of any misconduct by those yielding power (even when it is in the name of justice).

Reasons for Increasing Cases of Custodial Violence and Custodial Death

One of the primary reasons behind custodial deaths is the ineffective implementation of existing guidelines.[xv] The DK Basu guidelines dealt with keeping checks and balances at every step of arresting and incarcerating individuals.[xvi] Prakash Singh guidelines dealt with restricting political interference with police functioning.[xvii]

According to a Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative report, no state in India has adopted all of the Prakash Singh guidelines.[xviii] In the words of Prakash Singh, “Bigger states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh have been the worst when it comes to bringing about systemic changes in line with the judgment, and that it is only the North-Eastern states that have followed the suggested changes in spirit.”[xix]

Another reason is the apparent immunity awarded to police officials in cases of custodial violence, with their fellow police personnel doing their best to protect them.[xx] Jayaraj and Fenix’s deaths are a case in point.[xxi]  Driven by a strange sense of pride and camaraderie, those supposed to prevent crime end up supporting perpetrators of one of the most despicable crimes.

Another plausible reason might be the glorification of encounters and third-degree torture amongst the masses regarding people guilty or accused of heinous crimes. A case in point being the Hyderabad rape accused.[xxii] Mass perception and standards of morality and humanity in a time are often shaped by the popular media. Keeping this in mind, Bollywood is undoubtedly to blame here. With its overuse of the trope of a young, innocent police personnel fighting the system in the quest for justice (all parts of Singham, Dabang, Mardani, and any other cop movie), where the cop ultimately ends up either killing the criminal in police custody or inflicting unimaginable violence on them, Bollywood has successfully managed to normalise custodial violence amongst the Indian masses.

Another reason for rising cases of custodial violence can be the fear and distrust of the police amongst the masses.[xxiii] Instead of seeing the cops as their protectors, the commoners are often scared of approaching the police and like to keep a distance from them. A reason behind this can be the colonial hangover of being scared of everyone yielding the tiniest bit of power.

Ways to Curb Custodial Violence and Custodial Deaths

One of the most obvious ways to curb custodial violence is the effective implementation of existing guidelines. Due to the changing times, there is a need for newer guidelines as well. There is a need to install CCTV cameras in all parts of a police station. The police personnel also need to wear body cams at all times. This will help in ensuring greater police accountability and will reduce cases of fake encounters.

The government needs to hold awareness campaigns to make the people more aware of their rights. This way, they will be able to raise their voice even against minor infractions by the police. This will also reduce the fear of the police amongst the masses, which is the need of the hour. Along with this, Bollywood also needs to step up to change mass perception.

Most importantly, there is a need for training and sensitizing the police officials to be aware of the legal bounds they need to operate within while dealing with perpetrators. The cops should understand that they are there to serve the people, and not the other way round.


There has been a rampant rise in cases of custodial violence and custodial deaths, with the police often overstepping their legal and moral boundaries. The administration has largely disregarded the existing guidelines of the Honourable Supreme Court. There is an urgent need for bringing about stricter guidelines for the protection of the incarcerated, whether undertrial or guilty.

The researcher, here, would like to conclude with the words of the Malawi Supreme Court (used in a different context), “The right to life is the mother of all rights. Without the right to life, other rights do not exist.”[xxiv]In a democratic country, the police have no power to deprive individuals of their right to life.

[i] Charles E Reasons & Russell L Kaplan, Tear Down the Walls?: Some Functions of Prisons, Sage Journals (May 11, 2021, 10:38 PM), .

[ii] Jayshree Bajaria, Bound by Brotherhood: India’s Failure to End Killings in Police Custody (Meenakshi Ganguly, James Ross & Joseph Saunders eds., Human Rights Watch, 2016), .

[iii] Hyderabad Case: Police Kill Suspects in Rape and Murder of Indian Vet, BBC News (Dec. 6, 2019), .

[iv] Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, (1978) 4 SCC 494. Accord Mohd. Arif v. Supreme Court of India, (2014) 9 SCC 737; Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, In Re, (2019) 2 SCC 435.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] International Human Rights Standards Governing the Treatment of Prisoners, Human Rights Watch (May 18, 2021, 6:13 PM).

[vii] Akshaya Nath, Bloodied Clothes, Tortured, Discrepancies in FIR: Outcry over Tamil Nadu Custodial Deaths of Father-Son Duo, India Today (Jun. 27, 2020, 11:04 AM).

[viii] Janardhan Koushik, Protests in Tamil Nadu Town over ‘Custodial Death’ of Shopkeeper, Son, The Indian Express (Jun. 27, 2020, 10:11 AM).

[ix] SC to Hear Plea Relating to Framing of fresh Guidelines for Custodial Torture on October 7, National Herald (Sep. 14, 2020, 7:45 PM), (last visited May 15, 2021, 8:28 AM). The petition: .

[x] Mehal Jain, [Jayaraj-Bennix Custodial Deaths] Prima Facie Material for Murder Case Under 302 IPC Against Sathankulam Police: Madras HC, Live Law (Jun. 30, 2020, 11:48 AM), . See also Jyoti Punwani, Jayaraj and Fenix Killings: Torture, Intimidation, Encounters are an Old Tamil Nadu Police Tradition, Firstpost (Jul. 10, 2020, 6:44 PM),, (discussing how police intimidation of a magistrate investigating custodial deaths of Jayaraj and Fenix is grounded in a history of abuse of power by the Tamil Nadu Police).

[xi] Supra note iii.

[xii] Abhinay Deshpande, Hyderabad Veterinarian Case: Rape, Rage, and an exchange of Fire, The Hindu (Dec. 17, 2019, 5:40 PM), .

[xiii] Indian Penal Code, 1860, § 376, No. 45, Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India).

[xiv] Probing the Police: On Killing of Hyderabad Rape-Murder Accused, The Hindu (Dec. 16, 2019, 12:32 AM), .

[xv] Supra note 9.

[xvi] Case Summary: D.K Basu vs The State of West Bengal, Lawjure (Feb. 3, 2021), .

[xvii] Prakash Singh v. Union of India, (2006) 8 SCC 1.

[xviii] Mohamed Thaver, Explained: The 2006 Supreme Court Ruling on Police Reforms; How States Circumvent It to Influence Postings, The Indian Express (Mar. 31, 2021, 8:09 AM), .

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Supra note ii.

[xxi] Supra note x.

[xxii] Supra note iii.

[xxiii] Manisha Mondal & Rupanwita Bhattacharjee, Two of Five Indians are Scared of Police, Sikhs in Punjab Fear Them the Most, The Print (Jun. 11, 2018, 10:46 AM), .

[xxiv] Right to Life is the Mother of All Rights: Malawi Supreme Court Holds Death Penalty Unconstitutional, Live Law (May 1, 2021, 9:49 PM),