Some 1,000 women jailed in a space meant for 150, each making do with one bar of soap to bathe and to wash clothes for a whole month. Their children grow up knowing little about the outside world, unable to recognise even cats and dogs.
This is the world of women prisoners in the two jails that house them in and around Mumbai, one at Byculla and the other at Kalyan. Jailors and social workers say their plight is made worse by the indifference of their families. It’s tragic but true that women prisoners are ostracised much more by their kin than men are. Turn to Page 2 to read about the daily struggle of people we have shut away.
Every month, each of the more than 1,000 women at the Aadharwadi prison in Kalyan is given a bar of soap. They have to use this to wash all their clothes, their utensils, and themselves. Skin ailments are routine. Through the day, there are two toilets for all of them to share. Several woman have had a series of urinary tract infections. At night, they crowd into a space meant for 150.
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Nearly 1,500 women from in and around Mumbai are incarcerated in two city jails, this one in Kalyan, and another in Byculla.
There is stigma attached to women in prison, says a jail official. They are not supposed to be ‘criminals’, so their families want nothing to do with them. “While family members come to the aid of many male prisoners, with women they are reluctant,” the official adds, asking not to be named.
This means no one comes forward to help them with, for instance, another bar of soap. No one offers medical aid or moral support. No one explains where their cases stand, what their legal options are.
A jail official explained that many of these women are facing trial for murdering their husbands or domestic disputes. Families find it difficult to reconcile with this, and snap all ties with them. Sometimes NGOs step in and counsel the relatives. Some of them come around.
And sometimes, as it happened with a mentally ill woman at the Kalyan prison in 2010, families don’t even know they are in jail, and give them up for dead. It was only after extensive counselling that she was able to tell them her family’s address. Then, officials got in touch with them and they were reunited, says a source.
The absence of family is felt most when health problems strike. “Those suffering from high blood pressure or diabetes require a regular supply of pills. This is possible if their family members buy it and give it to them. Those with no relatives are taken to the nearby JJ hospital only after their condition worsens from lack of medicine,” said a former inmate at the Byculla jail, which houses about 350 women.
A psychiatrist and a gynaecologist visit the prison once a week, and there is a full-time doctor. “There used to be a full-time woman doctor, whom inmates felt more comfortable speaking with,” says a jail official. “She left a while ago, and the post has since been vacant.”
In some ways, life in prison mirrors life outside. For instance, class and power equations persist. Women form groups based on educational backgrounds and the ability to speak English. The richer ones, or those with links to the underworld, “rule the roost”.
“A woman convicted in a high profile case for plotting her husband’s murder had tremendous influence at the Byculla women’s prison. She even wielded clout among some junior staffers. The superintendent then got her transferred to Yerawada prison,” says a source.
In such an atmosphere, fights are common, and prison guards often have to intervene. “Staff and teachers who sometimes visit also need to have tremendous patience. Sometimes, teachers go on leave and never return,” an official says.
The job of looking into the problems of prisoners is the probation officer’s (PO), appointed by the department of women and child development. But there is a shortage of POs, and they are often handed other responsibilities, so inmates are hardly a priority.
Authorities say they do what they can, “As far as overcrowding is concerned, we are starting a facility for women at Thane jail as well, which can house 150 inmates by next month. This should help reduce the load at Aadharwadi prison. Apart from that, we follow the procedures laid down by the prison manual, and take care of the inmates,” says Bipin Kumar Singh, inspector general of prisons (southern region).