Prisoners to get hot water, bedding, phone call facilities from state govt | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Prisoners to get hot water, bedding, phone call facilities from state govt

ByVinay Dalvi
Jul 07, 2023 12:48 AM IST

Fr Swamy, who passed away two months later at a private hospital, was provided with a mattress, bedsheet, pillow, walker, walking stick and commode only after he moved the Bombay high court for temporary bail on medical grounds

MUMBAI: In May 2021, 84-year-old Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, who had been sent to jail by the government in the Elgar Parishad case, found himself in dire straits. A Parkinsons’ sufferer, Fr Swamy was unable to drink water from a glass and had requested a straw or sipper, which was denied to him. Eventually he was compelled to approach the special NIA court, but received his straw and sipper only a month and a half after he had filed his application.

“40 smart card phones have been installed for inmates to contact their family members. “They are allowed to make three calls of ten minutes’ duration each, every month,” said a senior prisons officer. (HT Photo)
“40 smart card phones have been installed for inmates to contact their family members. “They are allowed to make three calls of ten minutes’ duration each, every month,” said a senior prisons officer. (HT Photo)

Fr Swamy, who passed away two months later at a private hospital, was provided with a mattress, bedsheet, pillow, walker, walking stick and commode only after he moved the Bombay high court for temporary bail on medical grounds. Till then, the octogenarian was not even examined by jail doctors although his condition was worsening, and he was at grave risk from other inmates in Taloja Jail who had contracted the Covid-19 virus.

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The plight of others arrested in the case was no different—lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha had to move the courts for books and spectacles, Telugu poet Varavara Rao’s health was severely impacted while Vernon Gonsalves, although he tested positive for dengue, was not given treatment. “It was only when the courts intervened that they all got treatment,” said Gonsalves’ wife, lawyer Susan Abraham. “The conditions in jail are inhuman.”

In this horrifying situation, some cheer is in order on account of the Maharashtra government’s latest decision. While the central ministry of home affairs is working on the Model Prisons Act, 2023 to replace the existing 130-year-old colonial law in order to “shift the focus of incarceration from retributive deterrence to reformation and rehabilitation”, the prisons department in Maharashtra has already begun providing a few added facilities to prisoners.

One of these is the smart card phone facility, launched on an experimental basis, in which 40 smart card phones have been installed for inmates to contact their family members. “They are allowed to make three calls of ten minutes’ duration each, every month,” said a senior prisons officer.

The decision was taken after the Covid-19 pandemic when there was a sudden spurt in incidents of phones being smuggled into jail. “We held several meetings and finally decided to let the inmates speak to their families on a regular basis,” said Amitabh Gupta, additional director-general, Maharashtra Prisons. “The smart card phones are likely to be installed in all 58 jails across the state. We are also working on a video-calling facility, and soon inmates will be able to communicate with their families via video call. This will be especially useful to foreign inmates like Nigerians.”

Several prisoners have over the years also approached the courts for basic facilities like mattresses, pillows and hot water for bathing. Among these are former ministers Anil Deshmukh and Nawab Malik—both of whom have various ailments—who applied to the special PMLA court to allow them beds and pillows during their incarceration in Arthur Road Jail. This year, the prison administration decided to permit all these facilities to prisoners above the age of 50 and those suffering from ailments, albeit at their own expense.

“The focus has shifted,” said Gupta. “Punishment is no longer only retributive. Jails are now being viewed as correctional centres, and therefore a rehabilitative, reformative approach is being adopted.” Another senior jail officer said that union home minister Amit Shah had called for this approach at the inauguration of the 6th All India Prison Duty Meet in 2022. Shah had said that India’s incarceration system was prone to abuse since it was set up by the British primarily to subjugate political prisoners.

Other reforms in Maharashtra jails include a proposed simplification in the process of applying for parole and furlough as well as more palatable food on the menu. “For the first time, we have invited suggestions from inmates vis-a-vis eatables in jail canteens,” said the second officer.

The state’s 58 jails accommodate an inmate population of 40,718 against their capacity of 24,722. To address this issue, the authorities are increasing barracks in several prisons, and constructing new prisons in Palghar and Ahmednagar districts. “We have also sanctioned 2,000 additional posts in the prisons department to address the issue of scarcity of staff,” said a prison officer.

Another laudable move is the creches that the prisons department has started for children of female undertrials. “These creches have been built outside the jail walls to expose the children to the outside world,” said Gupta. “They can also mix with the children of the prison staff and learn a few things.”

The creches initiative was taken with the help of an NGO, Aangan, which works in the field of child welfare. “We have regular meetings with NGOs and have started various skill development programmes for prisoners, so that when they are released, they can get work and become self-reliant,” said the jail officer. “We have also tied up with banks to give them loans so that they can start afresh and ease their way back into society.”

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