Bangalore jail: An island of the unwanted

Bangalore jail: An island of the unwanted

It is in some ways a sacred place where our society claims control over the lives of men and women; where we assume the roles of gods. And whether the prison sprawls over acres like the nearby farmlands or compresses its convicts in tight, dark cells, the air within is dense. There is a palpable weight created not only by the crimes the undertrials and convicts have committed but also by the ownership the society and the state have taken of the prisoners, whether it is acknowledged or not.

Parappana’s stunning isolation, its monstrous perimeter walls and barbed-wire fencing, the grey granite blocks that house the dreary and overcrowded, but lonely, cells, the milling crowd of men in coarse cotton shirts and pajamas and women in sarees, and the khaki-clad jail warders are a distinctive reminder of the walled world that we cannot really understand. Perhaps the state does, for, in Parappana, it has provided a template for a more fearful and vengeful society in a country that no longer aims, along with the inmates, to repair and redeem but to warehouse, avenge and permanently differentiate convicted criminals, petty offenders and undertrials from law abiding citizens.

Spread over a walled-area of 40 acres, the Parappana jail, which has double the number of inmates it can incarcerate, is nowhere near some of the mammoth penitentiaries or correctional centres in America, most notably Louisiana state’s ‘Angola’, which has provided the backdrop for numerous feature films and documentaries, including ‘Dead Man Walking’. But, as in ‘Dead Man Walking’, in which Sister Helen Prejean establishes a special relationship with death row convict Matthew Poncelet, at Parappana there is Sister Adele, a diminutive nun who visits the cells everyday in her attempt to deliver redemption from despair. “It is a difficult task to help them reform. When some of them get released, they go back to the same milieu or their earlier residence where they are shunned by all. But there are exceptions like Vincent who has returned to work as a plumber,” Sister Adele said.

The less fortunate

Not many are as fortunate as Vincent. Thirty-year-old Kalyani Sharma, a mechanical engineer from Mumbai, has already served a five-year sentence for theft along with husband Vinod Sharma, a hotel management degree holder. Draped in a white khadi saree, Kalyani says she continues to remain in jail because she is yet to pay up a fine amount of Rs 86,000. And if she is unable to cough up the amount she will remain behind bars till 2013. “With a five-year-old son who is growing up in these dark dungeons, life appears bleak even outside. I am like a castaway, shunned by parents and relatives,” says Kalyani in chaste English as she speaks to Deccan Herald on the ground floor verandah of the women’s prison block. She shares the meagre food, bathrooms, kitchen and a solitary tube well with 149 others here.

Outside the cells, with every hand dealt in the prison compound there are those who while away the unending hours and days playing “hulikattu”, a chess-like game in which small pebbles, like pawns, are placed on an intricate “board” carved on the grey floors.

Others engage in routines more mundane – bathing or brushing their teeth, a few hang around a “classroom” where, in assistant jail superintendent P V Anand Reddy’s words, “moral science” and basic education is provided to the inmates so that they “do not get contaminated”. The inmates – convicts and undertrials – are expected to work for meagre wages in small, rudimentary units where they manufacture steel and wooden furniture, weave khadi into kurtas and pajamas and work sundry other odd jobs that fetch them earnings as low as Rs 10 or as high as Rs 20 per day. Their wages are notional in the sense that they get earnings coupons which they can redeem to purchase fruits from a Hopcom or other necessities which the prison authorities do not provide.

In their attempt to shrink the prison population, over the past four years, nearly 1,000 undertrials and convicts have been set free on grounds ranging from lack of evidence to good behaviour. And yet, the numbers are still so high that the prison authorities admit that they are woefully short-staffed. Besides their normal duties of guarding the undertrials and convicts, they also try to inculcate "good" qualities among the inmates.

There is a library with 40,000 books and periodicals, but it is doubtful how many of the inmates engage in an activity that could help them to feel empathy, to emerge from their cocoons of self-centredness and appreciate the humanness of others.

Redemption

But books do not mean much for 25-year-old Rekha Mary, an undertrial charged with murder which, she says, she never committed. “I was framed by my husband who wanted to clear me from his path so he could settle for another woman,” Mary said, her nails biting into her flesh as she held back tears, “Here I am serving time for four years with no idea when I will be produced in court next.” Hopelessness is writ large also on the face of Johann Tuchler, a 58-year-old Austrian from Linz who has been charged under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act for carrying seven kg of hashish. Calm and composed, he said: “I am supposed to be in court on Friday and I am not sure if I will be there at all. But I am not complaining.”

Some of the undertrials have spent part of their adult lives earning redemption within the confines of Parappana where they have the power of disobedience, rebellion, disruption and violence. But in the jail, where the human capacity to endure suffering is immense, redemption also owes its success to the prisoner’s consent which emanates from understanding and reasonable commonsense accommodation at almost every level of their dark existence.

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