Jail Research

Jails in India : An Investigation

(From PUCL Bulletin, Nov 1981)

See alos,
Case Study: Tihar, Delhi 
Case Study: Arrah, Bihar 
Case Study: Sakchi, Jamshedpur

Any discussion on prisoners in a sympathetic manner evokes a sharp response: “Why should you worry about these people? They are dangerous criminals, murderers and rapists, why complain if they are ill treated ? They deserve it.” In the popular mind, prisoners are dangerous criminals and hence deserve no mercy. No wonder the local population of Bhagalpur-and many outside-supported the Bhagalpur blinding.

The notion that prisoners are dangerous criminals assumes that our police is, in the first instance, able to nab the culprits- dacoits, murderers, black marketers, smugglers; that prosecution then does take place; that notwithstanding the delays, criminals are convicted-whether they are rich or poor.

Who are the people in jails ? Are they dangerous criminals, a threat to society ? Our investigations establish that a majority are either under-trials or those picked up for other reasons.

In Tihar Jail, in the capital of India, children are simply kidnapped from the streets and made to do all the menial work; the police who act in liaison with the jail staff do not pick up the rich people’s children. Those nabbed are the poor, without a home, who sleep on the pavements or in a public park. The criminal charge against them is vagrancy !

Kuldip Nayar, who spent some time in Tihar Jail during the Emergency, writes: “The slaves were boys between ten and eighteen, employed as ‘helpers’, and there were scores of them. They cooked, washed uten-sils, cleaned rooms, fetched water and did much back-breaking labour to ‘help’ those who were paid to do these chores.”

They would be woken up before six to prepare morning tea and would be allowed to sleep around 10 at night after scrubbing pots and pans. They were herded into a ward which had no sanitary facilities, but were always well lit all night to enable a sleepy warder to check at a glance if they were all there. The warder explained that whenever the number of prisoners in jails xvent up, the police were asked to bring boys to help with the chores.

One is inclined to believe that Delhi is not an excep-tion. For jails in many places are overcrowded and naturally the jail staff needs “helpers.” The slave system in varying degrees may well be prevalent in jails in other states.

Poverty, Vagrancy and Prostitution
About inmates in Hissar Jail, Primila Lewis has this to say : “Arrested on a charge of ‘awara gardi’ under the famous Section 169 of the Indian Penal Code for vagrancy, Piloo…. could not have been more than sixteen-years-old. She stayed with us a few weeks and then got out on bail provided for her by a constable in return for a spell with him as his mistress.

“This we learned was a routine occurrence. Single warders or policemen would offer to stand bail for these feckless young girls knowing that they were orphans and without help, in return for temporary or long term cohabitation.”

I was told of a similar instance from Khetri Jail, Rajasthan, where two jailers bailed out a woman and kept her for a week. In Central Jail, Jaipur, my friend heard a woman prisoner refusing bail arranged for her by another woman, a prisoner acting as a go-between, “I know why you want me out of jail.” The All Bengal Women’s Association report on women prisoners in Presidency Jail, Calcutta, in 1974 highlights similar incidents.

Then there is the story of Meena: “Meena had arri-ved (in Elissar Jail) in a fearful state, unable to walk, her rectum and vaginal area torn and bleeding, and raving like a lunatic. She had been kept in police custody for twenty-two days after her arrest and every day she had been raped by five or six policemen in succession. Practically deranged by this experience, she was then handed over to jail authorities. She screamed and sobbed and threatened to jump on the thanedar or sub-inspector just as he and his cohorts had ‘jumped.’ The sub-inspector of police shook his head sadly. ‘She is mad’, he. said, and the jail autho-rities asked no more questions.”

Meena’s crime-brought from a village in Nepal by a brahmin.. . .left alone… vagabond… She was sentenced to seven days simple imprisonment. So, that was her “simple imprisonment”. One may go on and on. The victims invariably are the poor.

And then there are the prisoners from Hazaribagh and Jamshedpur jails who Mary Tyler describes: “Nearest to the bars slept Bulkani, old, skinny and asthmatic, a retired colliery worker, in prison without trial for three years already, on a petty theft charge..”

She cites the case of 55-year-old Gulabi : “Together with four other labourers she had been harvesting paddy on a landlord’s field, unaware that the ownership of that particular land was disputed by his cousin who promptly had all the labourers, and the man who had employed them, arrested for stealing his paddy. Ironi-cally, the two landowners settled their quarrel and Gulabi’s employer was released from jail, while the labourers remained behind bars. Gulabi had been in prison for nearly three years.. . . without once seeing the magistrate.”

Mary Tyler goes on: “A child was brought into our care. Her father, a widowed coal miner, had gone on hunger strike outside the colliery manager’s office after being redundant. On the fifth day he had been arres-ted and since there was nobody to look after his three-year-old daughter, he had been obliged to bring her to jail with him.”

In the Women’s Reformatory, Jaipur, as on July 1, 1981, out of a total number of 40 convicts, nine were charged with murder and attempted suicide. Eight of them were fed up with life for various reasons (poverty, fight with in-laws).

Once is not Enough
If you are poor and have once landed in jail-for whatever reason or no reason-the probability of your being back in jail off and on is fairly high. This is the impression I gathered from my talk with some of the under-trials in Jaipur Central Jail. “When you are an undertrial and go to the court every fortnight, the people, policemen everybody watches you.. . . You are a ‘criminal’. You will be nabbed again as a suspect when-ever anything goes wrong in your locality. At the police lock-up you will be beaten (if you do not bribe them) to extort a ‘confession’.”

“These policemen,” another undertrial said with anger, “ask you to steal and demand their hafta (share). If you do not have the ill-gotten money, how will you give them? And if you don’t, they will throw you in jail. What does one do? Keep away from crime and land in jail? Or, do all the wrongs, give the dogs their share and be a free man outside?”

Often when an undertrial is to be released, the jail authorities hold him and ring up all the police stations if they “need” him There is many an instance of a prisoner released by court and re-arrested at the jail gate itself on some other charge. These tactics have been used consistently against the political acti-vists of all hues in general and the so-called Naxalites in particular.

While some are physically prevented by the police from going to the court, others-and there are reports to this effect-by sheer poverty may not be able to get money to meet the travelling and bail expense. Absence in court…, warrants issued… . back to jail.

The reader might well ask, “You are trying to appeal to our emotions.”

Well, yes, for why should one look at things in an emotionless manner ? Figures, however convincing- and I shall cite statistics as also official statements— tend to hide the intense human misery.

According to the 78th report of the Law Commission as on April 1, 1977, of a total prison population of 1,84,169, as many as 1,01,083 (roughly 55%) were under-trials. For specific jails, some other reports show: Secunderabad Central Jail- 80 per cent under-trials; Surat-78 per cent under-trials; Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya-66 per cent under-trials.

Most under-trials are for petty offences (charges whose veracity itself is quite questionable with the police trying to make a quick-rupee through display of their uniform and ‘danda’). Some are charged with murder. In Sikar Jail, for example, there were cases where as many as nine under-trials were charged with one murder. Some of them were not even in the area of the crime. The records also show that children of eight years are charged with murder. For instance, in Rajasthan, for which I have detailed figures, for the four years 1975.79, of the total convicted prisoners every year, over 65 per cent of the convicts had been sentenced to less than a year. Less than 10 per cent of the convicts were sentenced to over ten years impri-sonment. And as K.F. Rustomji, former Inspector General of Police and former member of the Police Commission, writes : “The number of criminal repeaters in India is rather small. The number of dangerous criminals-psychopathic killers, murderers, professional robbers, burglars and compulsive rapists-would be very few.”

A further point that hardly needs any statistical corroboration-most of those who are nabbed by the police and are unable to have themselves bailed out are the poor. Those with resources, the big criminals, the smugglers, corrupt politicians, tax evaders are people who are rarely caught. Thus our institutions penalise not the violators of law but the poor-crimes or no crimes.

Life Behind Bars
What are the conditions in jails? What is the effect of confinement on the human psyche, away from friends and relatives, persistently nagged by fears? Caught in his own complexes, with no one to console him, how does a prisoner live through his years in jail?

Food, Accommodation and Medical Treatment
Most of the jails were built in the nineteenth century or at the turn of this century. They are in a state of disrepair and are overcrowded. The Shah Comini-ssion reports that on the eve of the Emergency, in as many as 15 of the 27 States and Union Territories, the actual population of the prisoners far exceeded the authorised accommodation. In Assam there were 7909 prisoners in accommodation meant for 4,930; Bihar- 38,407 as against 21,140; Madhyn Pradesh-16,66 as against 12,388; Orissa-l0,222 as against 6,668; Maha-rashtra-19,786 as against 14,801; West Bengal-25,999 as against 20,237; Delhi 2,699 as against 1,273. And with the imposition of Emergency thousands more were added.

The food served to the prisoners is unfit for consu-mption. According to a report of Seraikela Jail in Bihar in Economic and Political Weekly, July 1978, “Due to overcrowding, a number of prisoners have to spend the nights actually sitting up. The prisoners are invariably very poor people; but the food is so rotten that they find it revolting…..Quite often the prisoners are ordered to lap up the dal which overflows on to the floor. For vegetable the prisoners are fed with wild grass and roots…. A glass of water was found to have no less than one inch of mud at the bottom… . For 400 to 800 prisoners, there are just eight latrines. The prisoners therefore defecate at the drains. In winter, six of them have to huddle under one blanket. Tuber-cular prisoners sleep with the as yet un-diseased ones.”

Within a state, the situation may be different in different jails. For instance, in Rajasthan, satisfactory conditions prevail in Sikar Jail. The Jailor, a cons-cientious young man, has allowed the prisoners to form a panchayat which supervises the purchase and preparation of food. Not only are the prisoners satis-fied about the arrangement, they decided to donate one meal each to the flood affected victims in Rajasthan in July, 1981.

However, the situation was quite bad in Jaipur jail and worse still in Central Jail, Ajmer and sub-jail, Jhunjhunu. In Jhunjhunu, where there was incidentally no shortage of water, the jailor sanctioned half a bucket of water per week per person for washing and bathing. There was overcrowding, food was bad and inmates suffered from all sorts of skin diseases. If any one complained, he was beaten up. (Police firing in Samastipur Jail in January 1981, on prisoners protesting against bad food is just one example. In Ajmer Jail, Rajasthan, on the basis of a secret letter from prisoners, the ADM, Ajmer, conducted a surprise raid in the jail in December, 1980, and found 83 quintals of wheat buried in the jail compound. He also sealed the sand over which in des-peration, the jail authorities had dumped edible oil. The prisoners went on hunger strike. The DIG, Prisons. Rajasthan assured prisoners of an inquiry. The result? The prisoners who had pointed out the misdeeds have been transferred to different jails in Rajasthan. One of them was beaten so much that his arm has been fractured.)

Medical facilities-however meager-are available only in some central jails in each state. In district and sub-jails, (asterisk) a compounder or some registered medical practitioner is supposed to visit at regular intervals; the visits never materialize.

“Natural” Deaths
No wonder then that many prisoners die a “natural death” due to diseases which are otherwise minor and curable. In Seraikela Jail which has a capa-city of 82 and which was being used to keep 400 to 800 prisoners, “143 prisoners, mostly adivasi under-trials died between 1973 and 1975”. Bhabani Shanker Hoota, a political activist, who spend some time in Rourkela Special Jail, Orissa, during Emergency, tells us of two doaths in judicial custody “due to the combined negli-gence of hospital and jail staff.” Similar are the comp-laints from Central Jail, Jaipur. Here I came across, among other serious cases, a undertrial, a man of 22, who was sent from Karoli to Central Jail, Jaipur “for treatment”. His right arm was fractured. Not only was the bone exposed, but about an inch of it was jutting out. And what was worse, he had been in that state for over 20 days when I met him. He had been going to the jail doctor everyday and the doctor dutifully applied a yellow medicine and bandaged it. Why was he not sent to the city hospital ? “No police guard to accompany him to the hospital,” was the reply. (However, three days after my visit he was sent to the hospital and was operated upon.) In Karnataka, Snehlata Reddy, a serious chronic asthma patient, was denied proper medical treatment. She was refused parole in spite of the doctor’s recommendation and died with-in a week of her release.

Divide and Rule
Jails, overcrowded with prisoners and commonly understaffed, are run on the policy of ‘divide and rule’. The Jail Manual provides that from amongst the con-victs the authorities shall appoint “convict officers” (COs). They are supposed to be some sort of prefects for the inmates, but actually are the extra-institutional force of the jail authorities. The Convict Officer is a prized position, for it entitles a remission in jail sentence. These prisoners obtain better food from the mess and sometimes the “sick diet” (milk, fruit, eggs).

As a research student, when I said that I wanted to meet the prisoners in Central Jail, Jaipur, the authori-ties would call for these C.Os. I realised that they were viewed with hostility by the ordinary prisoners. These C.Os. told me that “there are no problems in the jail.. food is good. . medicines are available to sick.. Monday parades are held regularly”.

Ordinary prisoners had a different story to tell, of course out of hearing of C.O.s who would invariable try to hang on when an outsider interviewed the prisoner.

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On the weekly parades, which are held once in a month or two, the C.O.s accompany the Superinten-dent along with the Jailor and Warders. The Superin-tendent always moves into the wards with a massive force. If anyone complains, the C.O.s beat up the prisoners at his behest. The disobedient prisoners, those who ‘instigate’ the others, are handled by C.O.s and the jail staff together. “Those who demand better conditions and are rather persistent, are taken to the drama hall-meant for recreational and cultu-ral activities-tied to the pillar and beaten up by these people”.

The substantial portion of the “income” of the jail authorities is obtained through the C.O.s who are in direct touch with the ordinary prisoners. They charge the prisoners for putting in a word to the authorities for getting them remission in jail sentence or allowing the prisoner to have “illegal” articles in the jail (ghee, charas, or hasheesh). Often the promotion of a prisoner from an ordinary convict to convict night watchman or convict officer is through bribing the jail authorities. Most prisoners live in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. Though suffering is common to all, one does not see a sense of unity among them.

Loneliness and Frustration
Theirs is a closed existence; visits from friends and relatives are few and far between for most prisoners. Many of them have not had a visit for years together. Poor as their friends and relatives are, they find it difficult to bear the transportation expenses to visit their kith and kin in jail. Further, they are made to wait for hours at the jail gate; in many jails the gate-keeper asks for a bribe.

Then there are sexual perversions of all sorts. Homosexuality is widely prevalent. The jail authori-ties turn a blind eye to this. When a young boy enters, the prisoners have been known to have bid a price for the boy. The price offered is in terms of ‘bidis’, soap or charas. Often prisoners have been divided into camps and the groups have fought each other on the issue of who shall have the new entrant.

Gross Discrimination
The stories of the comforts and favours given to some of the alleged criminals, like Charles Sobhraj are well known. Santosh Rana writes about Presidency Jail, Calcutta, during the Emergency: “Some smugglers were there. They never ate jail food. Food reached them from their houses everyday. Some had the privilege of going out to their houses at night and coming back in the early morning”. And you do not have to be a smuggler or a kingpin to enjoy extra benefits. In Delhi jail, as those who have been there will tell you, you could have whatever food you wanted, only by paying a higher price. In Jaipur Jail, some prisoners from well-to-do families and undergoing life sentence have no problems in going out. On the pretext of going out to the city hospital “for treatment” they go to their homes with or without the police guard, returning to the jail gate by evening.

While these people get police escort “to go to hospital”, those who are genuinely sick and in need of treatment but resource-less are, usually not sent to the hospital. The plea of the jail authorities- “The police does not send us the guards”.

What is worse is that even the law of the land allows for discriminatory treatment. Some states classify prisoners as being in ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ class on the basis of their income or social status. The Shah Commission Report shows that even amongst MISA detenus, there was discriminatory treatment in almost all states.

I shall quote from the Shah Commission Report the part which deals with MISA detainees in Gujarat which holds for other states too with some variations. “The detaining authorities were autho-rised to classify the prisoners according to their discretion. However in April 1976, the Government issued certain guidelines treating Members of Parlia-ment, Members of Legislative Assembly, Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Chairman of Committees or Corpo-ration/President and Vice-President/Chairman of Committee of District and Taluka Panchayat as Class I prisoners. As a result of the petition filed by some of the detainees, the Government gave an assurance to the- High Court to examine the case of each detainee separately and further clarified on October 26, 1976 that engineers, doctors, lawyers and persons paying income tax over a period of 10 years of not less than Rs. 5000 a year, who had been detained for political activities and Presidents of Municipalities, would be given Class I status. Businessmen paying income tax of not less than Rs. 5000 a year were also given Class I status..

The treatment meted out to those arrested in the late 1960s and early 1970’s under the pretext of their being “Naxalites” breaks even those standards set by jail authorities themselves. Thousands still lang-uish in prisons without trial. After intensive efforts by civil liberties groups and many petitions to the Supreme Court some have been released in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. We just need to mention one ex-ample, that of Nagbhushan Patnaik, to exemplify the physical and mental deterioration that is the result of the brutal administration treatment in our jails.

Our judicial and penal system in its actual working obviously discriminates between the rich and the poor. In this scheme of thing what can be the case for prison reform?

Reforming the Reformatories
Let us outline some of the contours of the problem:

  • Imprisonment of an overwhelming number of under-trials-many of them being held in custody for long periods.
  • Lack of accommodation-overcrowding, bad food and an almost complete absence of medical faci-lities.
  • While hardened criminals are very few, severe restrictions are placed on almost all prisoners. The whole approach is retributive rather than reformative.
  • Prisoners demanding better treatment for them-selves have received lathis and bullets.
  • Rampant corruption in jail administration. One must note that the wage scale of the jail staff is also very low.
  • Lack of resources for jail administration, as one can infer from the low allocation for jails in the state and Central budgets.
  • Not all violators of law are penalised: it is the poor and quite often the innocent who are victi-mised.
  • The prisoners are denied “natural habitat” which we try to provide even to the animals we cage in our zoos. This coupled with the hopeless condi-tions in jails affects them irreversibly.

Some Suggestions
 since on the one hand, we are confronted with imprisoning large numbers of under-trials, and on the other there is serious overcrowding, why not release the under-trials who have been in jail for long periods?

Many would ask: “Courts take a long time to decide and we cannot afford to release the murderers and potential criminals”. As already mentioned many of them are not criminals. We need only to recall that following Supreme Court orders, the Bihar Government in 1979 released about 27,000 under-trials and there was no noticeable increase in crime.

Secondly, our prison environments are unnatural and inhuman. Along with other aspects of prison life, this leads to serious psychological disorders and even insanity. The conditions, in fact, “mature” petty thieves into hardened criminals. The “habitat” the prison must be changed. One possibility is the open camp system.

The open camp experiment is. being successfully carried out in Rajasthan. In Sampurnanand Open Camp, Sanganer, 50 to 60 convicts -all murderers- live with their families. There are no boundary walls, no fences with only four policemen as guards. The convicts are free to pursue any vocation they choose. I met one ‘prisoner” at a tea stall-which is run by him; another one was working on a government farm and also doing his own farming on one acre piece of land from the government; yet another, a registered medical practitioner had set up a clinic in the town. The prisoners who are eligible for the open camp must have completed 1/3 of their sentence in what can be described as the closed jail.

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“The open camp”, says the Inspector General of Police, Rajasthan, “does not cost us much. We have constructed the houses. We have given them some land. They earn their own living. And what is the best thing about the camp is that there has hardly been any instance of escape in the past five years. I may add that to be chosen for open camp, prisoners have to sometimes bribe their way through. The idea in itself is very good, is workable and should be extended all over.”

Thirdly, there is no internal mechanism to check the functioning of the jails today, which remain oppressive and cruel. Suggestions like employing jail staff of high character, or the strict implementation of the jail manual do not work. One section that can doggedly keep a close watch on the prisoners’ plight and make efforts to right the wrongs is the prisoners themselves. They must have the right to assemble and organise into panchayats. Their representatives must be involved in decisions regarding food and maintenance.

Fourthly, the supervision of the administration by the prisoners can be effective only when the rights of prisoners are spelt out. The eight jail manuals that I could collect-all of them, based on the Prisons’ Act, 1894-contained detailed instructions on petty things like the width of the belt to be worn by the staff, the number of holes per square inch on the gauge to seive flour but there was not a single chapter on the rights of the prisoners. While there is a need for a jail manual incorporating reformative approach as against the old manual drafted by colonial rulers primarily with a view to punish and suppress political activities, particular attention should be given to clearly defining the rights of prisoners. These rights must be enforceable in courts.

Fifthly, if the rights of prisoners, as proposed, are to be implemented, provisions must be made so that the jail staff do not violate them. These can be checked by the prisoners only if they have the right to communicate such instances to the judiciary and civil liberties groups freely and fearlessly. The prisoners must, therefore, have the right to mail out letters without any censorship by the jail authorities. Systematic efforts to involve the public and raise their awareness on these issues mtist be made simultaneously.

And lastly, what needs urgent attention and action is the question of bias in the operation of our police, judiciary and judicial custody against the underprivileged and poor. Notwithstanding any amount of prison reform, this bias will continue as long as there is gross inequality and discrimination.

Courtesy: PUCL Bulletin


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