Tales from former inmates: What life is like in a women’s jail in India
For law professor Shamim Modi, the first night was the worst. She was arrested amid a string of tribal protests and taken to a prison in Madhya Pradesh’s Harda district, where a single room served as the women’s ward.
As evening fell and the electricity snapped, large rats streamed into the hall.
The 46-year-old spent a sleepless night and woke up to find splotches of blood on the floor. Any complaining earned rebuke. “This is a jail madam, not a hotel,” she was told. The next day, she was eating her lunch of roti and dal, when the food started moving: Another rat attack.
The next 22 days passed in a haze of poor sanitation, little medical or psychological help and constant intimidation – she was moved to a bigger prison in Hoshangabad but was met with more hostile prison guards who she says invasively searched her.
Once, she remembers, she was taken to a room crawling with red ants and told tales of how unruly inmates would be locked up there with syrup slathered on them. Demands to see the prison manual, which details procedures and rights, were ignored.
On Day 23, she got bail, but those three weeks in 2009, she says, exposed her to a world she could not have imagined. “There is no contact with the outside world… there is often so much abuse that you don’t feel human, it can make you forget you ever had rights,” she says.
Just how bad things can get became apparent at a Mumbai prison a month ago. On June 23, Manjula Shetye, who was made the warden of her barracks on account of good behaviour, protested against the shortage of food rations.
Her complaint against five missing pieces of pav and two eggs led to a horrific aftermath: she was beaten, allegedly assaulted sexually with a lathi driven up her vagina, and then left to die, admitted to a local government hospital only after she fell unconscious.
A riot followed at the Byculla prison, and some 200 inmates have been booked for the uprising. Six jailors have been booked for ‘accidental death’ on the basis of eyewitness accounts.
OUT OF SIGHT
India’s women prisoner population has ballooned 61% over the past 15 years, far outstripping the male growth rate of 33%, but infrastructure growth hasn’t kept pace.
Women are often confined to small wards inside male prisons, their needs becoming secondary to those of the general inmate population.
Their small numbers – they constitute 4.3% of the national population – ensure they remain low on policy priority and hence the coverage of facilities such as sanitary napkins, pre- and post-natal care for pregnant mothers is patchy. In many jails, for instance, pieces of cloth are used in place of pads.
The problems are exacerbated in smaller sub-jails, says Madhurima Dhanuka of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. “There, overcrowding can touch 400%.”
The Model Prison Manual, drafted by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D), also calls for women doctors, superintendents, separate kitchens for women inmates, and pre- and post-natal care for pregnant inmates, as also temporary release for an impending delivery. None of these guidelines is consistently implemented across district and state jails, says Monica Dhawan, director of retired IPS officer Kiran Bedi’s prison reform NGO, India Vision Foundation (IVF).
“There’s a dire shortage of women wardens, superintendents, assistant superintendents, doctors, and counsellors. Because this need is not met, there are huge gaps between the needs of women inmates and the administration providing them,” Dhawan adds.
There’s also a large gap in the range, level, and quality of vocational training given to women inmates as compared to men, says Vijay Raghavan, field director of Prayas, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) field action project focused on prison reform.
Because their numbers are small, prison administrators are less likely to take initiative in introducing more courses. “There are more corporate tie-ups with male prisons,” says Raghavan. “Options for women are scant because new initiatives require scale, and women’s jails are synonymous with lack of scalability.”
The Model Prison Manual of the Bureau of Police Research and Development also calls for minimum dietary requirements for women, but there’s no way of knowing whether these, like the manual’s other guidelines, are followed.
“Food rations are significantly smaller for women inmates than they are for male inmates”, says Vartika Nanda, founder of the Tinka Tinka Project, a prison reform initiative with bases in the Tihar and Dasna jails. “Their diets are rationed to the extent that, in some prisons, this is the primary concern of women prisoners I have spoken to.”
BABES BEHIND BARS
Food may be one major concern, but across the board, another is childcare.
“The well-being of their children is one of the most traumatic and oft-ignored issues affecting women prisoners,” says Dhawan of IVF. “Inmates, whether undertrials or convicts, need access to a woman counsellor, and this is a need that is almost never met. After her child turns six and is removed from the prison, the woman inmate often has no way of knowing how her child is being brought up or cared for in the outside world, and this alone can be torturous.”
How are my children going to manage is usually the first question asked.
Take Tulsi (37, last name withheld on request). The Nepal-born mother of three was in Tihar jail for five years, on charges of murdering her husband with her nephew’s help.
There was no evidence against her, except a confession statement that she says she was brutally beaten until she signed. But with no idea that she had the right to free legal aid, she stayed in jail until IVF got her government-sponsored legal counsel. She was acquitted and released in 2010.
“Her greatest concern when we first spoke to her wasn’t being wrongly accused as much as the well-being of her older daughters, who were staying with an uncle,” says Dhawan.
In her work across Rajasthan for two decades, lawyer Ranjana Mertia says 99% of her clients have been poor women with no knowledge of the charges against them. In addition, legal-aid lawyers recruited by the government often show little eagerness, effectively locking these poor women in for years. “Most of them are inside on charges of killing their husbands, dowry,” she says.
The long detentions chafe their already tenuous bonds with families that believe women are expendable. “Families cut off all ties with them, no visits, no calls,” says Dhanuka.
Shereen Sadiq, a professor of sociology at Aligarh Muslim University, has come across several women crying bitterly even on the eve of their release because of the uncertainty ahead of them.
“If a man is in prison, women pool in money to bail them out, but if a woman is behind bars, she is effortlessly replaced as a wife or mother. Instead of prison reform, we should focus on getting quicker bail for undertrials,” she says.
For large chunks of inmates, the struggle begins anew once they step out of jail. Aparajita Basu, 48, from Kolkata, who was acquitted of her husband’s murder after 12 years, found no one would give her a job and her son shunned her. For her, government support and rehabilitation is the only answer.
“Many women I knew in jail died of lack of medicines when they were released. Others are still struggling for money or food. The government must help them,” she says.
One way out of this is creating more women-only prisons, like the one in Delhi’s Tihar jail, the largest such facility, built in 2000.
Central Jail Number 6 is a simple structure with lots of greenery, a gym, an open-air theatre, a beauty parlour run by inmates, and a canteen, says Sunil Gupta, a prison reform expert and former legal adviser to Tihar jail for almost four decades. “Women are in distress when they come to jails. To help them, we built this kind of a structure,” he says.
Essentially, the problem isn’t so much about prison administration as it is about inter-departmental coordination,” says Vijay Raghavan.
“Given the nature of the major problems affecting women prisoners – physical and mental health, hygiene and sanitation, lack of staff – it’s the joint responsibility of the state departments of health, women and child welfare, home affairs, and education to step up. Prisoners aren’t constituencies for governments because they cannot mobilise to ask for their rights. But they are citizens, and have basic human rights, just like everybody else.”