Sheela Barse vs State Of Maharashtra 1983 AIR 378, 1983 SCR (2) 337


 Sheela Barse is a veteran activist and journalist, and is often credited with introducing the concept of child rights in India. She led several public interest litigation cases before the Supreme Court of India including complaining of custodial violence to women prisoners in the police lock-up in the city of Bombay. The petitioner stated in her letter that she interviewed five out of  fifteen women prisoners in the Bombay Central Jail with the permission of the Inspector General of Prisons between 11 and 17th May 1982 and five out of them told her that they had been assaulted by the police in the police lockup.


1) Whether the bad treatment which the female prisoners have to deal with is defensible or not?

2) Whether the ill treatment of the female prisoners can be considered as a violation of the rights enshrined under Article 21 of Constitution or not?

3) Whether it is the obligation of the State Authorities to provide legal counsel to prisoners or not?


Our constitution gives us Article 39 A, one of the basic principles of state policy, which specifies that the state must offer free legal assistance to its citizens in order to ensure that everyone has access to justice. Not only does Article 21 guarantee the right to life and liberty, it also guarantees equality before the law under Article 14. The court ruled that because it is required under Articles 14, 19, and 39A of the Indian Constitution, impoverished people who are being detained should be given legal help. The Court instructed the social workers to report on any mistreatment of female detainees in the jails. In order to establish “legal aid organizations” at the High Court and District levels, the Supreme Court issues a notification to the Inspector of Jails. According to Section 160(1) of the CrPC, only female police officers are permitted to check a female suspect.


Sheela Barse wrote a letter narrating the incidents of custodial violence against women prisoners in a Mumbai Police Lockup. The court recognised the journalist’s letter as a Writ Petition and served notice on the state of Maharashtra, as well as law enforcement officers such the Superintendent of the Bombay Central Jail and Inspector General of Prisons, Maharashtra. The Court in order to verify the allegation of a letter possession directed Dr. Desai of the college of social work in Bombay to visit the Bombay central jail and interview women, prisoners, there. The report affirming the facts of the letter provided a detailed account of the problems and difficulty facing women prisoners. It also narrated a specific incident of two foreign national women prisoners being duped and defrauded by the lawyer. The Director (A.R. Desai) of the College of Social Work in Bombay, Nirmala Niketan, was instructed to speak with the female convicts alone in order to determine whether the claims made to the petitioner were true or not. Devamma and Pushpa Paeen were the two major female inmates; they were reportedly abused and tortured while being held in a police cell. Dr. Desai was given the go-ahead to undertake the assigned work with all necessary resources provided by the State Government and the Inspector General of Prisons.

 Measures in Safeguarding the Rights of Prisoners:-

The Supreme Court of India in various cases has taken a serious note of the inhuman treatment on prisoners and has issued appropriate directions to prison and police authorities for safeguarding the rights of the prisoners and persons in police lock–up. The Supreme Court read the right against torture into Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution. The court observed that “the treatment of a human being which offends human dignity, imposes avoidable torture and reduces the man to the level of a beast would certainly be arbitrary and can be questioned under Article 14”.


The Honourable Court held that deprivation of access to the law to prisoners would jeopardize the Right to equality which is found in Article 14 and the Right to life and personal liberty is protected and mentioned in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

“Imagine the helpless condition of a prisoner who is lodged in a jail who does not know to whom lie com turn for help in order to vindicate Iris innocence or defend Iris constitutional or legal rights or to protect himself against torture and ill-treatment or oppression and harassment at the hands of his custodians. It is therefore absolutely essential that legal assistance must be made available to prisoners in jails whether they be under-trial or convicted prisoners.”

The court issued the following guidelines with regard to protection to the women prisoners in police lock-ups:

  1. The court directed that four or five police lock-ups should be selected in reasonably good localities where only female suspects should be kept and they should be guarded by female constables. Female suspects should not be kept in police lock-up in which male suspects are detained.
  2. Court further directed that interrogation of females should be carried out only in the presence of female police officers/constables.

There is no society without crimes or criminals . Crimes should be rooted not the criminal.

In 2016, the Ministry of Home Affairs released the Model Prison Manual, which aimed to standardize prison management and improve the condition of the prisoners. Government has taken several measures to resolve these kinds of issues in recent years.


There are about 4 lakh prisoners in 1,401 prison institutions across India. Over the years, several efforts have been made to bring about changes in the prison system, but the progress has been slow. Some measures are to be taken to improve their condition:-

1) Educational and vocational training programs

2) Mental health facilities

3) Improving the jail facilities (food , sanitation, hygiene)

4) Reconstruction of jail staff members

5) Taking measures to improve the health of prisoners

6) Establishment of an specialized independent body for the welfare of prisoners

Cases Referred:-

Raghubir Singh v. State of Bihar 1987 AIR 149, 1986 SCR (3) 802

Prabha Dutt vs Union Of India & Ors 1982 AIR, 6 1982 SCR (1)1184

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