From cholera to coronavirus


How prisons in contemporary India continue to follow the colonial handbook. 


Two political reactions to the spread of epidemics in prisons in India – over 150 years apart – suggest that history continues be relevant in understanding contemporary responses to the pandemic. In 1863, Dr C Plank, the administrator of the Agra Central Prison, penned a sanitary report in which he noted that “the inmates of a large Prison, such as the one under notice, are so placed as to offer peculiar advantages in the study of epidemic disease.” He traced the impact of a cholera outbreak in the prison from May to August 1862, noting the rapid spread of the disease and the rising morality rate among the prisoners. For Plank, the proper administrative response to an outbreak of cholera was to “spread” the prisoners as much as possible, including keeping different prison work gangs from interacting with each other. Ultimately, however, he argued that once the disease had taken hold in a prison, it was nearly impossible to prevent high mortality, particularly because “medical treatment was so entirely useless” against cholera.

Plank and his contemporaries sought some minor reforms to prison organisation and labour systems in order to contain cholera epidemics. Nonetheless, they framed the prison system as fundamentally inflexible, and epidemic illnesses as an unfortunate reality of prison life. Mid-19th-century British prison administrators argued that while improving the health and sanitation of prisons was important, it should never come at the cost of their systems of discipline and control over prisoners.

More than 150 years later, as COVID-19 cases soared in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the summer of 2020, the state’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath announced that the state would move prisoners into temporary jails, to ease the spread of the disease in the states notoriously overcrowded prisons. Adityanath’s announcement came amidst calls to release more prisoners for their safety. By then the UP government had created screening boards to determine which prisoners could be released early in response to the Supreme Court’s directive for states to release prisoners from overcrowded jails. However, while responding to the Court’s directive and releasing some prisoners, the state ultimately increased its rate of overcrowding, from 66 percent to 79 percent over capacity, due to an influx of undertrial prisoners. Instead of de-densifying, the state’s focus has shifted towards mitigating the spread within prisons. The state government’s decision to expand temporary jail facilities was thus a partial rejection of proposals to expedite early release. Activists emphasised the importance of releasing the state’s undertrials, many of whom have been awaiting court dates for years. Nonetheless, only about 8,500 of the 62,669 incarcerated undertrials in UP were slated for temporary release, with many others moved between permanent and temporary jails. 

Adityanath’s approach reflects a particular understanding of public policy and governance, where mitigation of public-health hazards is commendable, but the government’s primary role is to detain, incarcerate, and discipline those convicted of crimes and those awaiting trial. In this narrative, while the government has some responsibility to attempt to protect prisoners from disease, prisoners forfeit their full rights to health when they are arrested or convicted of a crime. As in the 19th century, Indian states like UP have undertaken minor reforms, like erecting temporary prisons, to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. Nonetheless, their political leaders have largely accepted that incarcerated populations will have high rates of infection and mortality, viewing this as a necessary and unavoidable outcome of maintaining discipline and control in jails.

Prisons, cholera, and morality in colonial India

In the middle of the 19th century, a series of deadly cholera epidemics sparked various attempts at prison reform in British India, as well as interventions in colonial discourses on morality that dismissed the medical needs of Indian prisoners. Under the British Raj, prisons were designed to discipline both the minds and bodies of Indians who threatened social, economic, or political authority. But this design and the accompanying systems of punishment and rehabilitation put inmates at risk of infection, leading to deaths from cholera and other diseases. As a result, British Indian jails were, by the mid-19th-century, closely associated with illness in colonial administrative discourse.

The widespread cholera deaths in prisons threatened British claims that imperial rule brought improvements in physical health and sanitation, particularly for the members of poorer classes who were more likely to be imprisoned. In the mid-19th century, mortality rates usually hovered around seven to eight percent of prisoners in British Indian prisons, but occasionally reached up to 30 percent in particularly crowded or epidemic-ridden prisons. While reforming some aspects of prison administration in response to these high mortality rates, colonial prison administrators ultimately sought to justify the prison system by connecting the perceived moral failures of Indian prisoners with their increased risk of disease. These associations between health, sanitation and morality have persisted, and are mirrored in today’s debates over prisoner release from overcrowded prisons in response to the pandemic.

Historian David Arnold has shown that from the 1830s prison reforms in India focused primarily on questions of discipline and oversight, with a particular emphasis on rebuilding and reorganising prisons in a Benthamite model. This meant that new jails were constructed with designs meant to improve administrative knowledge of prisoner behaviour, with the ultimate aim of reforming the prisoner’s morality by controlling their actions.

However, in the 1850s and 1860s, following movements in Britain to improve prison sanitation and health—first in Britain and later in its colonies—as well as a series of major epidemic outbreaks in India, surgeons and physicians were given a greater role in the administration of Indian prisons. Within the British Indian administrative system these prison doctors sometimes argued that failure to prevent mass death in prisons undermined any colonial claims to ‘improve’ health and sanitation in India. As Arnold noted, these physicians and surgeons decried the fact that illness regularly made even short prison sentences equivalent to a death penalty. Despite the rise of this class of doctors-cum-prison administrators, discipline remained the central tenet of British Indian prisons, with the need to protect prisoners from illness being secondary to efforts to control prisoner behaviour.

Cholera, like other epidemic diseases, became closely linked with prisons in the British imagination of India over the course of the 19th century. Beginning in the 1820s and 1830s, British physicians in India used the study of prisons and prisoners to form and promulgate hypotheses about the spread of the disease. James Hutchinson, a Calcutta-based surgeon, authored an 1835 report titled The Medical Management of The Native Jails, in which he argued that cholera in India was not of a highly contagious nature. He hypothesised that its cause was a poor “state of the atmosphere,” though he admitted that this was only “conjecture”, and that evidence was limited. The ‘poor atmosphere’ hypothesis was a popular understanding of disease prior to the widespread acceptance of germ theory and the role of contaminated water in the 1860s and 1870s. Despite these observations, Hutchinson admitted that crowding could cause cholera to reach epidemic proportions, and advised that Indian jails avoid overcrowding to prevent breakouts. He argued that overcrowding in jails contributed to poor air quality and circulation, central to his understanding of his spread of the disease. As a result, he advised that if a jail registered cases, it ought to be “immediately vacated, and exchanged for tents built in a high, open, and dry situation.”

Moral imperatives

Hutchinson’s advice seems to have been largely ignored, as prison administrators feared that moving prisoners could disrupt efforts to monitor and control their behaviour, labour, and activities within the prison. In fact, one of the most significant prison reforms during the period involved the reorganisation of penal labour, rather than significant improvements in health and sanitation. Penal labour in Indian jails was first designed to extract work and income from a captive population, but, by the 1850s, administrators also conceptualised it as a way to teach convicts industriousness and discipline. At All-India Jail Conferences – occasional prison administrative meetings held between the mid-19th and early 20th century – jail administrators from across the Subcontinent developed shared concepts of the moral imperatives of industry. At the 1877 conference, for instance, H Beverley, a conference member appointed from Bengal, argued that “labour itself is honourable… it is the duty of all to labour in some form… this of all others is surely the lesson we should strive to enforce on our criminal classes.”

New forms of penal labour ultimately undermined many of the health imperatives articulated by doctors concerned about the spread of cholera. By organising prisoners into tightly managed work gangs, often under the supervision of fellow prisoners, new penal labour systems contributed to the spread of infectious diseases among prisoners forced to work together. The emphasis on industriousness and the honour of labour meant that prison administrators increasingly viewed prisoner requests for sick leave from labour with suspicion. Administrators regularly accused prisoners of shirking their duties, and the inability to work due to illness was sometimes seen as a moral failing, rather than a medical issue. As a result, according to an 1860 report, labouring prisoners were about 35 percent more likely to die in jail than able-bodied convicts not slotted for labour. Joseph Ewart of the Bengal Medical Services, who authored the report, suggested that this was counterintuitive, since he believed that labour should improve prisoners in mind and body. With improved sanitary measures and food, he argued, this rate would be improved.

The laboratory

Cholera epidemics plagued Indian prisons throughout the 19th century, but massive outbreaks in the 1860s sparked consternation and fear among prison doctors in India. By 1854, a doctor in London had shown that contaminated water was the primary source of cholera, but awareness of this development remained limited in India, and reasons for the spread of cholera remained misunderstood. As a result, even as they advocated for health reforms to protect prisoners from the disease, many British physicians in Indian prisons also saw jails as ideal spaces to study cholera. As Hutchinson had suggested decades earlier, the captive, confined, and crowded nature of prison populations made them ideal for studying the spread of infectious diseases. Prisoners thus became unregulated test subjects in British Indian efforts to prevent, treat, and understand cholera. Their participation in these studies was typically coercive or unwitting, with prisoners rarely if ever consulted as doctors tested new medicines and studied the spread and progression of the cholera on their bodies. Even for doctors who advocated health and sanitary reform in British Indian prisons, prisoners largely lost any rights to control access to their own bodies and health once they entered the penal system.

While British administrators articulated new sanitary and health concerns surrounding prisons in the 1860s and 1870s, they continued to build prisons in areas that were considered unhealthy or uninhabitable. In Madras, the construction and occupation of a new prison in 1846 took eight years to complete, in part, due to the opposition from the city’s European population who argued that the area’s poor drainage and ‘unhealthy’ location would be harmful to the health of European convicts.

As popular awareness began to coalesce around the issue of illness and morality in jails, colonial jail administrators began to face scrutiny and protests from the Indian press and local publics. In 1885, as cholera again spread through jails across Bengal and northern India, the Bengali newspaper Surabhi railed against the administration of the jail in Rungpore, in what is today northern Bangladesh. Reportedly, the superintendent of that jail had claimed that its high rate of cholera mortality was due to the fact that ill, impoverished individuals would commit crimes in the hopes of being sent to jail, where they might receive some medical attention. Surabhi decried these “shameless” and “false” claims and the jail’s administration as “detestable” for issuing the statement. Similarly, in 1889 the Halat-i Hind newspaper of Allahabad accused the government of the Northwestern Provinces of “slaughtering [prisoners] like sheep and goats.” The report claimed that the government had facilitated the rapid spread of cholera through jails at Nainital and Allahabad by providing prisoners with “insufficient and unwholesome food”.

These newspapers often retained classist assumptions in their arguments, maintaining that wealthy and educated prisoners should receive better food than the poor, and that well-off prisoners should not be subjected to the same types of “hard labour” as others. Nonetheless, they reflected a rising popular awareness of and resistance against the high mortality rates that accompanied cholera in Indian prisons. Despite the sanitary reforms of the 1860s, the death rate from cholera remained abysmally high throughout the 19th century. In his 1835 report, Hutchinson noted that although he had seen some success experimenting with a combination of drugs for cholera patients in prisons, approximately half of his patients still died of the disease. C G Wiehe, a physician and the inspector general of prisons in the Bombay Presidency, claimed that most of the prisons he inspected usually had overall mortality rates between five and eight percent. However, in years with major cholera outbreaks, the morality rates of the imprisoned population could spike to 15 to 20 percent. Likewise, a report on prisons in Bengal in 1888 noted that although outbreaks of cholera had fallen that year, those inmates who contracted cholera still had less than a 50 percent survival rate, with several prisons in the region reporting deaths in over 60 percent of cholera cases.

Incarceration in an Indian prison during a cholera epidemic was thus highly fatal, and the reforms of the 1860s and 1870s only succeeded in marginally reducing these fatalities. In response to growing pressure from the Indian media and public, jail administrators sought to shift the blame for prisoner cholera deaths. In an 1889 report on Bengal jails, A.S. Lethbridge, a surgeon and the prisons’ inspector-general wrote, “considering the wretched condition of health in which many undertrial prisoners reach our jails… it is a matter of surprise that the mortality rate… is not higher.” In other words, the jails’ high death rates were not a result of their poor sanitary conditions, but the conditions in which inmates lived prior to their incarceration.

Moreover, Lethbridge hypothesised that the ill health of prisoners, including their high rates of cholera, was partly a result of the shock that accompanied moving into the penal system. He argued that many prisoners were used to free, though immoral, lives, and simply could not adjust to the highly regulated nature of life behind bars, which led to “depress[ed] spirits,” a worsening in general health, and ultimately a predisposition to infectious disease. Officials like Lethbridge thus argued that it was only partially possible for jails to address cholera outbreaks through sanitary and health policies. In their view, the dismal health outcomes of the prison population resulted from what they saw as the nature of most Indian convicts: impoverished, immoral, and unused to strictly regulated environments and regular labour. Mortality was framed as a personal and moral failure of prisoners, not a sanitary and health failure of the regime.

Contemporary improvisations

As the threat and rate of infection from COVID-19 grew between March and August 2020, a variety of prisoner’s rights activists in India identified the overcrowded nature of Indian jails as a potential major health crisis. In March 2020, the Supreme Court ordered all states and union territories to “decongest” their prisons in preparation for a surge in COVID-19 cases. Many states focused on releasing undertrials on bond. As of 2019, undertrials comprised 69 percent of India’s incarcerated population, with nearly one-fifth of all Indian prisoners having been detained for over a year without a conviction. However, states with the most crowded prisons did not succeed in ‘decongesting’ to appropriate levels through early and bond releases. Several states, like UP, turned instead to alternative methods of pandemic prevention. Beyond mitigation of COVID-19, such methods also suggested that the state valued continued incarceration over the health rights of prisoners.

In UP in particular, the use of temporary jails also saw the coming together of carceral politics and sectarian nationalism. Among the first prisoners sent to temporary jails in UP – well before these jails emerged as a central component of the state’s dedensification plan – were members of Tablighi Jamaat. Tablighi Jamaat is a Muslim missionary organisation whose gathering during the early days of the pandemic marked one of the earliest mass outbreaks in India. Members of the group, and particularly non-Indian attendees, were, in the words of the Bombay High Court, used as “scapegoats” as the pandemic spread across India. Although many of the First Information Reports (FIRs) against members of Tablighi Jamaat were subsequently dismissed by courts elsewhere in India, in UP 83 members of the group were arrested.

Holding members of the organisation, particularly foreigners, in temporary jails was framed in part as an effort to prevent them from spreading COVID-19. However, members of the state government viewed the Tablighi Jamaat with suspicion also because of its Muslim and transnational character. In Bharatiya Janata Party-led UP, under stridently Hindu-nationalist Chief Minister Adityanath, members of Tablighi Jamaat were positioned as threats to the health and well-being of the Hindu majority. Their incarceration, despite the risks posed by increasing even the ‘quarantined’ prison population, reflected the state’s efforts to associate the epidemic and its spread with an already distrusted or disdained population. Whereas several other states dismissed charges against Tablighi Jamaat members, by continuing to incarcerate them in UP jails, Adityanath’s government implied that they should be held accountable for the regional spread of COVID-19. This notion was so widespread that some in the mainstream press and social media across the border in Nepal uncritically picked up the argument. The behaviour, belief, and identities of arrestees prior to their incarceration was once again used to explain the high rates of epidemic illness within the prison.

Moreover, even prisoners who were granted early or temporary release were given limited or no support in adjusting to the world outside of detention. This has meant that many former prisoners faced social and economic discrimination, with both potential employers and members of their communities viewing them as potentially contaminated by the virus. Others faced distrust within their communities because they were seen as criminals who had been released on a technicality.

Colonial prison administrators pursued sanitary and health reforms in Indian prisons in response to cholera outbreaks, but these reforms always remained secondary to the state’s belief in its responsibility to discipline and control incarcerated individuals. In much the same way, in UP, while the state government initially responded to the Supreme Court’s mandate by arranging early or temporary release for a limited number of incarcerated people, it ultimately sought alternative, conservative changes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Historically, both the colonial and postcolonial regimes have found easy scapegoats among the marginal. When the high mortality rate in colonial prisons undermined British claims on social improvement, prison administrators blamed the contexts in which incarcerated people lived and worked prior to their incarceration for their susceptibility to epidemics. In contemporary India, meanwhile, officials have blamed individuals coming from marginalised communities, like members of Tablighi Jamaat, and justified incarceration of individuals distrusted for their religious or social backgrounds. These carceral responses to health scares, from the days of cholera outbreaks in the 19th century to today’s pandemic, suggest that colonial-era associations between prisoners’ health, sanitation and morality remain intact today.

(This article was first published on Himal Southasian.)