Jail Research

Tales from former inmates: What life is like in a women’s jail in India

Most jails for women are just a room or two in a men’s prison. Food rations are smaller, infrastructure is poorer. A recent riot following a custodial death was triggered by five missing pieces of bread and two eggs.

For law professor Shamim Modi, the first night was the worst. She was arrested amid a string of tribal protests and taken to a prison in Madhya Pradesh’s Harda district, where a single room served as the women’s ward.

As evening fell and the electricity snapped, large rats streamed into the hall.

The 46-year-old spent a sleepless night and woke up to find splotches of blood on the floor. Any complaining earned rebuke. “This is a jail madam, not a hotel,” she was told. The next day, she was eating her lunch of roti and dal, when the food started moving: Another rat attack.

The next 22 days passed in a haze of poor sanitation, little medical or psychological help and constant intimidation – she was moved to a bigger prison in Hoshangabad but was met with more hostile prison guards who she says invasively searched her.

Once, she remembers, she was taken to a room crawling with red ants and told tales of how unruly inmates would be locked up there with syrup slathered on them. Demands to see the prison manual, which details procedures and rights, were ignored.

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On Day 23, she got bail, but those three weeks in 2009, she says, exposed her to a world she could not have imagined. “There is no contact with the outside world… there is often so much abuse that you don’t feel human, it can make you forget you ever had rights,” she says.

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Just how bad things can get became apparent at a Mumbai prison a month ago. On June 23, Manjula Shetye, who was made the warden of her barracks on account of good behaviour, protested against the shortage of food rations.

Her complaint against five missing pieces of pav and two eggs led to a horrific aftermath: she was beaten, allegedly assaulted sexually with a lathi driven up her vagina, and then left to die, admitted to a local government hospital only after she fell unconscious.

A riot followed at the Byculla prison, and some 200 inmates have been booked for the uprising. Six jailors have been booked for ‘accidental death’ on the basis of eyewitness accounts.


India’s women prisoner population has ballooned 61% over the past 15 years, far outstripping the male growth rate of 33%, but infrastructure growth hasn’t kept pace.

Women are often confined to small wards inside male prisons, their needs becoming secondary to those of the general inmate population.

Their small numbers – they constitute 4.3% of the national population – ensure they remain low on policy priority and hence the coverage of facilities such as sanitary napkins, pre- and post-natal care for pregnant mothers is patchy. In many jails, for instance, pieces of cloth are used in place of pads.

The problems are exacerbated in smaller sub-jails, says Madhurima Dhanuka of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. “There, overcrowding can touch 400%.”

The Model Prison Manual, drafted by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D), also calls for women doctors, superintendents, separate kitchens for women inmates, and pre- and post-natal care for pregnant inmates, as also temporary release for an impending delivery. None of these guidelines is consistently implemented across district and state jails, says Monica Dhawan, director of retired IPS officer Kiran Bedi’s prison reform NGO, India Vision Foundation (IVF).

Mothers in prison can keep with them any children they have under the age of six. Here, women inmates at the central jail in Amritsar pose with their babies. “After her child turns six and is removed from the prison, the woman inmate often has no way of knowing how her child is being brought up or cared for in the outside world, and this alone can be torturous,” says Monica Dhawan, director of retired IPS officer Kiran Bedi’s prison reform NGO, India Vision Foundation. (HT File Photo)

Courtesy: Hindustan Times

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