It’s early morning. Seventy-two-year-old Raja Ram, after his daily glass of milk, is ready for a walk. His advanced years have taken a toll but a young man holds his hand and helps him through the day’s ritual that the elderly man looks forward to.
In Delhi’s high-security Tihar jail, 270 inmates above the age of 60 — one of them is 82 — and serving time for robbery, murder and other such crimes not only have attendants cooking and washing for them but doctors on call as well.
The authorities recently moved all elderly inmates to what they call the Buzurg Ghar, or the home for elderly, in jail 3.
Ram, who is serving a life term for murder, doesn’t want to think what life would be outside the jail. The world outside scares him — his wife and two children have not visited him in years, nor have they tried to contact him. Tihar offers him comfort and security.
“The present is perfect, but the future is a worry,” he told HT on Monday, arranging books on a table next to his bed, one in a long row of cots arranged in a well-lit white-washed dormitory, which was once a barrack and is close to the prison hospital.
The oldest of the Tihar inmates, Mohammed Hanif has settled down well in his new surroundings. “At this age, it is difficult to sleep on the floor. In summer, it is still manageable but Delhi’s winter is too harsh for an 82-year-old to sleep on the floor,” he said, sitting on his bed.
Though prisoners are not allowed cots, for these men the rule has been bent. Each one of them has a bed and a mattress.
Their day starts with a glass of milk, fresh from the jail’s cow shed. They do not have to work like other inmates and spend their day reading, offering prayers or sharing their life stories.
Dinner is normally khichdi and porridge that are easy to digest for men like Gurdeep Singh. “Those who are unwell and cannot chew solid food are given khichdi,” said the 65-year-old murder convict. “We also have a doctor who prescribes us a diet, keeping our health in mind.”
Helpers, doctors on call and a special diet-Tihar's senior inmates now also have a cell to themselves. (Prawesh Lama /HT Photo)
Twelve inmates aged between 75 and 85 have sewadars, or helpers, picked among the “well-behaved” young prisoners who wash their clothes, take them for walks and anything else they need help with.
“Some of us can’t even walk. Our young friends help us walk to the hospital,” Bhagwan Das said, going back to his newspaper. The 78-year-old who keeps to himself is in jail for murder.
“We want these senior citizens to live in a friendly environment. They may be prisoners but they are old. Their health is our priority,” said director general (Tihar) Alok Verma, who has been involved with the senior citizens home.
Buzurg Ghar is the latest in a string of reforms that Tihar has tried to usher in. Furniture and bakery and jute products made by inmates -- sold under the brand name TJ’s -- are available at the prison outlet as well as malls.
In the past, inmates have done well in “campus” interviews and bagged good jobs.
Tihar may be the largest prison in Asia but for its aging inmates, it is a sanctuary -- against uncertainty and advancing years.
Gurdeep Singh summed it up. “Who is going to look after us once we leave jail? For society, we are still criminals.”