There are 22 children under six who live at the Byculla prison with their mothers, all undertrials. All of them have seen inmates come and go. They watch as ugly fights break out around them. They know sparse rooms and dingy beds. But few have ever seen a dog or cat.
Even men are alien to them.
“Children who have been inside prison walls since birth have not experienced things considered basic in the outside world, such as say a fridge. When they leave the prison, they are overwhelmed and scared by what they see,” says Pradyna Shinde, a social worker from Prayas, a field action project by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, which works on the rehabilitation of prisoners.
Children below the age of six can accompany their mothers to prison, and they often do because families abandon them. They spend formative years in prison, and often carry experiences learnt in the extreme atmosphere of the jail for the rest of their lives. In addition to the children at Byculla prison, there are more than 20 of them at the Aadharwadi jail at Kalyan. Once they cross the age of six, they are sent to a child care institution, if no family member comes forward to take them.
There is an anganwadi, set up by the department of women and child development, inside the Byculla women’s jail, which provides basic education and skills training to these children. But they are a far cry from regular playschools, and the children learn and observe a limited number of things. Instead of the alphabet and colours, these children often learn abuses and violence. “Inmates who have children can also be at a disadvantage. If the child starts crying at night and wakes up others in the barrack, this could lead to a fight,” says Minal Kolatkar from Prayas. “Also, as these children are around women all the time, they find it difficult to emotionally connect with fathers or male relatives when they meet them.”
Shinde, who has worked with prisons for more than 15 years, however, pointed out that there has been a lot of improvement in the facilities made available for the children. “Unlike before, they are now allowed to take the children outside the barracks, though within the prison compound, which helps in the normalisation process.” Another improvement is that birth certificates no longer mention the prison as the place they were born, as this could create obstacles in the future. “It was after we communicated this problem to the municipal ward officer and prison officials that the practice was stopped,” she says.
The government and courts have been attempting to make things easier for inmates with children, both inside and out. “The Maharashtra police recently issued a circular making it mandatory for the police to ask the woman if they had any dependent children when they arrest them, so they do not lose touch with them,” Shinde says.
The Supreme Court, too, recently passed detailed guidelines to prison departments across the country to look into the wellbeing of children living there.