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Covid-19 impact: Released prisoners, women likely to be pushed back to crime, sexual exploitation, TISS survey reveals

Days before the first lockdown was announced in March last year, 26-year-old Mankhurd resident Deepak (name changed) was arrested in a theft case and lodged at Arthur Road jail
By Priyanka Sahoo
UPDATED ON APR 19, 2021 04:51 PM IST
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Days before the first lockdown was announced in March last year, 26-year-old Mankhurd resident Deepak (name changed) was arrested in a theft case and lodged at Arthur Road jail. Out on bail, the former office boy looked for jobs but could not find one amid the nationwide lockdown. Dejected, Deepak found himself giving in to drugs, and was soon back in jail.

Around 88% of released prisoners and women discharged from shelter homes in Maharashtra, who lost jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic, may have been pushed into destitution or forced to go back to crime or commercial sexual exploitation, a survey by Prayas, a field action project of the Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, has found.

Prayas, a 31-year-old project of TISS, surveyed over 500 people to measure the effect of the pandemic on vulnerable groups who come in direct contact with the Indian criminal justice system. While a majority of the respondents (86%) were from Maharashtra, 9% were from Gujarat, 1% from Bihar and 4% from other states. Prayas essentially works in Maharashtra and Gujarat with populations affected by criminal justice.

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“Most of the offenders come from marginalised background but social stigma excludes them from availing government schemes and benefits. As a majority of them lack any vocational skills, their employment opportunities are further diminished,” said Vijay Raghavan, professor, centre for criminology and justice, school of social work, TISS, and project director of Prayas.

“People in penal or protective custody essentially are from the same socioeconomic category as migrant workers or those working in the informal sector, but may be worse affected as they remain invisible. Our aim was to highlight the impact of the lockdown on this invisible group of people,” said Raghavan.

Meeran Borwankar, an IPS (Indian Police Service) officer who retired as the director general, Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) and National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), said, “Often those involved in property crime veer towards it again. Most other convicts/released inmates have records of body offences due to land disputes/interpersonal issues/emotional outbursts etc. They generally do not go back to a crime but as the survey points out, suffer extreme economic hardships. However, criminals involved in organised crime have a strong tendency to re-join their gangs. They pose a grave danger to the society during the pandemic.”

More than half (59%) of those surveyed were women and were the worst-affected by the pandemic. Of the 12% that were able to retain employment after the lockdown, only 26% were women. At the same time, 69% of those who borrowed money during the lockdown were women.

Ranjana (name changed), who works as a domestic help in Bhiwandi, lost her only source of income when her employer let go of her services during the lockdown.

“I didn’t even have ration to feed my two children,” said Ranjana, whose husband is serving a life sentence in Amravati jail.

Ranjana’s struggles to feed her children also reflected in other respondents –87% said they required support for their ration needs.

“The findings of the survey clearly indicate the risks involved for the women respondents who might be driven to destitution, sexual exploitation or illegal activities due to economic pressures,” said Raghavan.

While 20% of those surveyed were illiterate, 23% said they had studied up to Class 9 or Class 10, and 21% had an educational background of up to upper primary education (Class 6 to Class 8). Women fared worse as 28% were illiterate, while 20% each had upper primary and secondary education.

Borwankar said that women convicts/released inmates are one of the most vulnerable sections of society.

“My experience is that besides economic hardships, they face more social discrimination too. Pandemic has been a double whammy for them. This is the time when local communities and NGOs should chip in,” she said.

In the past year, Prayas has raised and disbursed funds worth 10 lakh and distributed monthly rations to over 1,600 families with the help of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) wings of private organisations like the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives and Godrej CSR.

The survey found that 99% respondents faced difficulties in accessing justice and 35% said they did not have support from their families or community with regard to their cases.

“The lockdown also restricted the quality and quantity of help that we could provide to our beneficiaries. For example, people like Deepak have to be looked after more closely to make sure that he doesn’t fall back to old ways. I couldn’t physically check on him as often and his ailing mother could do very little,” said Pravin Patil, a social worker working with Prayas.

Mulakat

The discontinuation of ‘Mulakat’, the visitation facility in prisons, affected the mental well-being of prisoners as well as their families, as 24% reported difficulties. While video calls were commenced for e-Mulakat between inmates and their families or lawyers, not everybody had access to a smart device and internet connection.

“It’s been over five months since Deepak last saw his mother. He has become agitated and displaying violent behaviour. Mulakat is an essential part for the mental well-being of both prisoners as well as the family,” said Patil.

However, for others like Ranjana, the e-Mulakat has been a boon.

“To visit my husband, my children and I would have to undertake a two-day journey from Bhiwandi to Amaravati and back. At least now we know he’s just a phone call away. I hope e-Mulakat is a permanent feature,” she said.

“At the time when physical Mulakat was stopped, there was no other option to contain the pandemic. The video calls have helped reduce the anxiety of many people during these testing times,” said Raghavan.

Last year, Prayas had released a report on the best practices followed by prisons across the country in terms of the Mulakat and communication mechanisms adopted by them for inmates. The practices were analysed based on the ease of access to the prison system, the priority in focus and the policy and practice. Based on the analysis, Prayas had made recommendations to improve contact/relations between prisoners and their families.

Some recommendations included a pre-booking facility for appointments, a facility to send money to the prisoner and basic facilities in the waiting/ Mulakat room such as wash rooms, drinking water taps, ceiling fans and air coolers.

“Mulakat is a very important aspect in the rehabilitation of a prisoner upon release. It is more important for women in custody to be allowed to remain in touch with their children,” Raghavan added.

“Post pandemic we need to discuss the survey findings of Prayas and engage with government, community, NGOs/activists for systematic rehabilitation programmes for prisoners to enable them to withstand future disasters of different kinds,” said Borwankar.

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