Ensure justice for women prisoners - Hindustan Times
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Ensure justice for women prisoners

Sep 09, 2023 09:52 PM IST

Overcrowding in Indian prisons is a major issue, especially for women prisoners who face isolation and lack of legal aid. Rehabilitation efforts are essential

The issue of overcrowding of prisons has been brought up by President Droupadi Murmu, and by various judges, including the Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud. But in the creaky legal system, the needle has not moved much. The typical prisoner in India is likely to be illiterate or semi-literate, young and socio-economically backward. They end up spending more time as undertrials or serving their sentences than they should, as they have little awareness of legal procedures. In this, women are doubly marginalised. They face stigma and isolation from their families and are largely ignorant of legal processes.

Rehabilitation efforts have to begin when the women are in prison,(Vipin Kumar / HT File) PREMIUM
Rehabilitation efforts have to begin when the women are in prison,(Vipin Kumar / HT File)

Of all women in prison, which is a little over 4% of the total prison population, according to Prison Statistics India Report 2021, there were 1,650 women prisoners accompanied by one or more children below the age of six. Despite Supreme Court guidelines mentioning that crèche and nursery facilities should be provided outside prison premises to ensure their “proper biological, psychological, and social growth”, children who are with their mothers largely receive little attention.

Built on the initial experience of working with women undertrial prisoners in Mumbai, Prayas, a field action project of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), pioneered the simple yet powerful strategy of placing social work students and full-time trained social workers in prisons, police stations, courts, and women and children’s institutions in Maharashtra and Gujarat. This exposed criminal justice institutions to professional social work methods and restorative practices. Vijay Raghavan, professor with the Centre for Criminology and Justice at TISS and project director, Prayas, says, “The presence of the trained social worker in the criminal justice system ensures that the women prisoners and their children accompanying them and those left outside are able to access legal aid and welfare schemes and find pathways towards their social re-entry.” What needs to be addressed is access to legal aid through private lawyers and the District Legal Services Authority, ensuring connect of families with people in prisons and observation homes, emergency support to families for health care, rations, travel, house rent, support to women prisoners’ children, enhancing legal, health and hygiene awareness, rehabilitation, and training and placement programmes for livelihood integration — income generation activities inside prison and vocational training programmes.

Rehabilitation efforts have to begin when the women are in prison, particularly in the form of counselling, making home visits, sponsoring children’s education and arranging vocational training. Above all, a placement programme needs to be framed as many of these women cannot go back to their parental or marital homes. Nearly 1,100 persons have undergone Prayas’s NGO placement programme, most of whom are now successfully reintegrated into legally sanctioned livelihood pursuits. Prayas has already initiated several steps worth replicating in other states. These include meetings of imprisoned mothers with their children in other locations via video conferencing, upscaling the diet of pregnant/nursing mothers and children inside prison, setting up anganwadis for children in prison and mandatory inclusion of permanent address of the mother (and not the prison) in the birth certificate of children born inside prisons. As one woman prisoner, Reshma (name changed), says, “Before my arrest, I used to work as a cleaner in an office and I would be scared to even touch the computer but today I feel elated that I am learning the basics of computers. I feel like a changed woman.” Given that the number of women in prison is still relatively manageable and keeping in mind India’s G20 espousal of women-led development, now would be a good time to initiate measures across prisons to end their isolation and stigma and give them back a sense of self-worth and economic independence.

The views expressed are personal

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