In Indian jails, some are more privileged than others

Son of a rich Congress politician, Sharma was awarded parole to see his ‘ailing mother’ (who was not ill) away in Chandigarh.

Similarly, Vikas Yadav, an accused in the murder of Nitish Katara, a 24-year-old business executive in Delhi, in 2002, also moves in and out of Tihar at will. Yadav is the son of a wealthy UP mafia don-turned-politician D P Yadav. Like the Manu Sharmas and the Vikas Yadavs, there are several other ‘VIP prisoners’, including serving MPs, living in all conceivable comforts in prisons and making the best of ‘both the worlds’.

The rules are brazenly twisted and tilted in Indian jails in favour of those wielding muscle, money and political connection. The parole to Sharma was given on the recommendation of Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit. Compare this with the case of life civil-rights activist Binayak Sen whose wife Ilina sought to give two books, Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ and another on healthcare, to her husband but the Raipur jailer refused to deliver them, saying “they need to be scrutinised”. According to Sen’s wife, he is being caged in a very small cell and allowed free movement only for two hours each in the morning and in the evening.

Being a doctor of some repute and with a band of influential ideological supporters across India and abroad, Sen may still hope to get some latitude under pubic pressure but the same may not be the case with the poor prisoners who are at the mercy of the ruthless prisons system. It is estimated that nearly 80 per cent prisoners in the country’s jails are either illiterate or have not passed high school. A majority of them are also from the economically poor strata.

The ‘class-discrimination’ within the barded-wires is a regular occurrence even after several jails are said to have been ‘reformed’ or the convicts emancipated. The big-time offenders draw greater ‘awe and attention’ from jail authorities than petty-criminals.

If the current high-profile prisoners in Tihar include R K Sharma, the suspended IPS officer convicted of murdering journalist Shivani, Madhu Koda, the former Jharkhand chief minister facing corruption charges, and Manu Sharma, Tihar’s hall of frame included serial killer Charles Shobhraj.

Feted and pampered by jail authorities, Shobhraj, convicted for multiple murders, ran his own gang within and outside the jail premises and was often visited by his girl friends. The manipulative Shobhraj captivated the corrupt jail officials before making good his escape to Goa.

In Indian jails, the goodies reach the door steps of cells occupied by ‘privileged inmates’ on demand. Quality food, high-end cellphones, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, money and even women are easily accessed by convicts and undertrials of well-connected backgrounds. The corrupt jail officials are hand-in-glove with these gangs and cliques who run their business and rule over their ‘lowbrow colleagues’.

The sufferings

For the lesser mortals, life is but a struggle to keep the body and soul together against a series of  odds of which extortion of money by warders, regular beatings, extreme difficulty in getting parole and access to lawyers and relatives are only a few of the visible issues. Forced labour, particularly of minors who are picked up by the police from streets and prostitution rackets make the scene more inhumane beyond the walls.

The jails are evidently unsafe for women prisoners. Even Bollywood actress Monica Bedi, alleged to be an accomplice of mafia don Abu Salem, had complained of violation of her privacy in Hyderabad jail with authorities putting video cameras in the bathroom.

Overcrowding has made matters worse in 1,356 jails spread across the country. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there are 3,84,753 prisoners lodged in jails all over the country. The latest statistics (at the end of 2008) put the authorised capacity of undertrials and convicts at 2,97,777 which has been exceeded by 86,976 inmates. The extent of overcrowding in the jails has been nearly 30 per cent, which is unacceptable by any standards. Besides overcrowding, staff shortage has put pressure on the prisons system. The official sanction is 68,920 staff members where as the availability is of only 49,250 across all jails.

Recently, two Tihar inmates kicked up a storm by alleging that they were asked to kill Commonwealth Games officials Sanjay Mahendroo, T S Darbari and M Jayachandran who are lodged there on alleged corruption charges.

“The allegations by the jail inmates are incorrect. These are convicted people involved in heinous crimes. We wanted to break the gangs (they had formed) so we shifted them to a high security prison (within Tihar),” says prisons director-general Neeraj Kumar. In a way, the official admitted the presence of gangs under the high-security walls of the country’s biggest jail which houses many death row prisoners, including Afzal Guru.

Root and branch jail reforms are required  as ‘the human contents’ inside the prisons gets recycled back into the larger society outside which, in the first place, produces ‘criminals’ of all hues to fit into the varied prison cells.

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