Mobiles, drugs, all you want! No bar behind bars as nexus thrives in Punjab jails
Mobiles, drugs, all you want! With the announcement of a crackdown by the new minister, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, on illegal activities in jails across Punjab, the focus is back on what, ideally, are reformation homes. HT brings out the extent and complexities of all that’s wrong with the system.Updated: Jun 03, 2018 13:36 IST
Hours after he was sworn in as minister for jails in April, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa said he received a mobile phone call from an inmate of the Kapurthala Central Jail to congratulate him. The irony was hard to escape.
Randhawa said he asked the prisoner, a native of Gurdaspur district to which Randhawa belongs, about how he managed to get the mobile phone into the jail, and this is the reply he got: “It’s the easiest, simplest thing to manage inside jails.”
- Probe conducted in May by IG Roop Kumar Arora chose 14 officials, including a DIG, for departmental action on charges of negligence in allowing two Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists lodged in Patiala Central Jail to use mobiles inside between 2009 and 2011
- Also in May, police constable Gurpartap Singh in Patiala arrested for providing mobiles to inmates; he was posted at a bakshikhana (cell at courts where inmates are kept for court hearings) and used to provide mobiles to inmates who would take them inside jails.
- On May 2, minister Sukhjinder Randhawa ordered suspension of Gurdaspur jail superintendent and deputy superintendent after nine mobile phones were recovered from the jail during a search by police.
- In April, photos of birthday celebrations of alleged gangster Bharat Sharma alias Bhola Shooter, an undertrial lodged at Faridkot jail on murder charges, were uploaded on Facebook by another gangster, Parampal Singh Brar alias Pala.
- Also in April, staff at Amritsar Central Jail learnt that a prisoner wearing a nihang style turban and returning from parole was carrying phones in his turban. As many as six phones, including two smartphones, tumbled out.
This was followed by a “crackdown” and a “clarion call” by the minister to officials that if mobile phones are found inside jails, action will be taken against the superintendent and his deputy too. Among the staff toom, only the superintendent can now use a mobile phone inside jail, say new directives.
But, within days of this tough posture, the department was left red-faced when, on May 29, prisoner Gobind Singh lodged in the Faridkot jail shot a three-minute video on a mobile threatening to kill chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh. This was shared on social media, and two inmates were booked for it.
Jails of Punjab, though, have a dubious history of gangsters posting pictures and giving threats on social media from inside jails. Mobile phhone is one of the “most sought-after” facility sought inside jail. Various probes conducted into different incidents by the jail department have exposed how criminals, because of connivance with jail staff, live with authority inside jails, right from making video calls to family and friends, to doing drugs.
Little seems to have been learnt from the Nabha jailbreak of November 2016, in which a group of armed men freed six dreaded prisoners from the ‘maximum security jail’. Those who freed them were in touch with the gangsters inside the jail.
In the past three years, more than 3,000 mobiles were recovered from 26 jails in Punjab. Of these, 1,543 were in 2017 alone. Nine jail staffers were suspended this year, but, such is the nexus between the staff and the inmates that it continues. In many cases, mobiles are thrown inside jails from residential areas located in the periphery. Every time, FIR is registered, but has evidently become routine.
As for signal jammers, only two jails, at Nabha and Kapurthala, have 3G jammers. There have been talks to install 4G jammers, and 5G is round the corner already.
How do phones and drugs enter the jails, though? Central jails in Punjab have three-tier security system. Whenever a prisoner is brought in, he/she is checked at the main gate by jail staff and police; then, ‘intense frisking’ is done at the second gate by jail staff assisted by Punjab Ex-Servicemen Corporation (PESCO) staff and Home Guards. Before the prisoner is lodged in a cell, frisking is redone by PESCO, Home Guards and the jail staff. Surveillance cameras have been installed at the first two entry points and other sensitive areas inside. But the proverbial ‘prison pocket’, that is, boy cavities such as the rectum, are used to smuggle drugs since there are no body scanners placed at the entry of the jails.
Various intelligence reports say drug cartels are being run from inside prisons. In 2016, a probe report submitted by the Ferozepur police revealed that 19 inmates addicted to drugs had been getting regular supply from another group of inmates. The drugs were being sold inside at a premium. Money was deposited in the bank accounts of relatives of the imprisoned smugglers after consignments ordered on mobile phone would be delivered.
The minister acknowledges this. “Such a nexus exists inside jails. Amritsar jails have the maximum number of such reports. Breaking this chain in on our agenda,” he told HT.
Former director general of police (DGP), prisons, Shashi Kant says, “Mobiles or drugs can be thrown into the jail from outside indeed. But these can be used inside only, and only, if jail authorities are hand in glove with the users. These have become avenues of corruption for the staff. We need to devise new ways and techniques to check this.”
he mentions that Tihar Jail in Delhi has adopted a strategy to appoint police personnel from outside — from Nagaland to guard the main gate, from Tamil Nadu to guard the outer areas. “The motive is that prisoners and the local jail staff should not get acquainted with the guards at the main gate and the periphery areas, as these are the only two ways from where drugs and mobiles can be supplied,” said the former DGP.
Gangster-turned-social activist Lakha Sidhana, who recently met the minister to give suggestions to improve the conditions inside jails, also stated that those guarding the prisoners provide everything, right from cigarettes to chitta (‘white’ powder, heroin) to mobile phones. “For a bidi, staff charges Rs 200. Everything is available inside. You need to pay the staff,” he told the minister. A large number of prisoners are accused or convicts in drug cases, which aids this trade.
Senior officials of the department, who do not want to be named, say that “underpaid” PESCO staff and Home Guards easily get attracted to “offers”. “A PESCO personnel gets less than Rs 10,000 as monthly salary. As for the Home Guards, their union is so strong that if you take any action against them they start strikes. Providing facilities to criminals is earning them good money.”
Punjab houses approximately 23,000 prisoners, and there is a shortage of staff. Ideally, the ratio of prisoners and jail wardens should be 6:1, but in Punjab it is 9:1. The department is short of 700 wardens.
- Punjab has 26 prisons, including 10 central jails
- They have 22,375 inmates against capacity of 23,218
- 60% are undertrials; 1,119 are women, 132 foreigners
- Against required ratio of one warden for each six prisoners, the ratio is 1:9; dept short of 700 wardens
Many officials also talk of “lack of facilities” for jail officials, who have separate cadre from that of Punjab Police. “We don’t have official cars. Superintendents have to use private vehicles as the cars we had have crossed their usable age. The last purchase of vehicles for jail staff was done in 1987!” rued a senior officers posted in Malwa region.
The jail officials are also underprivileged when it comes to their security. “The department expects us to have full control over criminals gangsters inside jails. When we tighten the noose around them, they threated us with dire consequences. But, in the name of security, we have two cops from jail staff, who are not even trained to fire from the pistol! In that situation, only two options are left — either put your personal security and family at risk of criminals, or shake hands with them,” a jail superintendent said.
As for the government seriousness, in last 14 months, the department has seen three different heads, hitting reforms.
PART 2 OF BOX:
Interview: Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, jail minister
‘Akalis turned jails into resthouses for criminals’
What is wrong with Punjab jails?
I don’t have any hesitation in accepting that the jail department has become a den of corruption. In the 10-year rule of SAD-BJP (2007-2017), jails became resthouses for criminals. Akalis set all norms aside to accommodate criminals and gangsters close to them inside jails. I will make sure that jails are not used for entertainment by criminals. We need extra funds to improve things. In just my first month (as minister), I’ve got project sanctions for crores from the finance department.
How are you planning to stop malpractices?
I have started on a good note. We need a sea change in the department if have to improve our jails. Officials have been instructed come out of this nexus with criminals. No laxity will be accepted. Very soon, I am going to study the Tihar model as well. We are going to appoint more jail wardens as well. Almost 500 are joining us shortly.
Use of mobile phones in jails has not stopped even after your crackdown on officials. Why?
Do you think I will be able to break the decade-long nexus in one or two months? I need time. This is just a start. We are going to buy 5G jammers by spending Rs 8 crore and I am hopeful that within one month the installation will start. I have also ordered decrease in size of barracks. At present, a few barracks are accommodating up to 100 prisoners. This strength will be decreased to 50-60 in each. I have the asked the intelligence wing to increase deployment in jails. To check supply of mobiles and drugs, we have started deploying CISF sanctioned by the Centre to Punjab. They will man the main gates. We are going to install body scanners and more sniffer dogs.
How do you plan to break the staff-prisoner nexus?
When the rules will be followed, this nexus will end automatically. Senior officials have to take responsibility. As far as political interference in the functioning of the department is concerned, I will take care of that. After becoming minister, even my party MLAs forwarded me requests to help a few prisoners. I politely said ‘No’ to them. I know that if I will open such gates, more requests will flood in.
Some jail officials say that by threatening to suspend them, you have put too much pressure on them?
I am not here to pressurise anybody. We are in a mess. To bring the department out of this mess, we need to work hard. I will reward my staff with promotion, too, if they show integrity. In case they continue to shake hands with criminals, I will dismiss them.