Ignored and unseen crises in prisons

Maniraju Krishnappa (name changed) emerges from a small side door cut into the main gate of the Parappana Agrahara Central Prison in Bengaluru, his face a mix of fear and relief.

He should be a happy man, having been released from prison for good behaviour, after having spent nearly two decades behind bars for an act of homicide. Instead, throwing fearful looks at the imposing 60-foot-high main prison gate, he hurries to join two dozen other recently released inmates, waiting for a government-sanctioned bus which will take them back to their home districts.

The face of another inmate is similar. When asked about conditions within the prison, the man laughs nervously and scuttles away down the sloping cement walkway towards the outer gate. When pressed, he hints that he is afraid that he will be sent back inside if he speaks against the prison. 

This is the fearsome reputation of Parappana Agrahara, which, as the largest prison in the state, has become a metaphor for the larger Karnataka Prisons and Correctional Services - and its flaws. 

Breaking the spirit

For much of the department’s history, its
actions revolved around the breaking of the spirits of people arrested for heinous crimes. In August 2019, however, a Supreme Court order, acting on a Public Interest Litigation ordered that the department focus on rehabilitation of inmates and add the word “Correctional” to its official title. 

Speaking to DH, the Minister for Home Affairs and Cooperation Basavaraj Bommai explained that as a result of the Supreme Court order, the government is trying to modernise the system, while embarking on an expanded programme to reskill workers and make prisons self-sufficient. 

The test-bed for these new ventures is Parappana Agrahara, which, with its prison population of 5,177 people out of a total inmate population of 15,134 in the state (10,924 of whom are still under trial), is at the forefront of institutional changes. 

At the core of the proposed reformation is a new Prison Development Board which according to Bommai will address the overall improvement of the seven central prisons in the state and prisoner welfare.

The ambitions are massive. The government is earmarking an extra Rs 25 lakh per year to offer skills training for inmates while expanding prison infrastructure.

“We are taking a long-view to the rehabilitation of prisoners. By giving them modern skills and education, we can prevent them from returning to a life of crime,” Bommai said.

However, whistleblowers and officials familiar with the system remain sceptical about the proposed reformations. Among them is D Roopa, the former Joint Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Prisons whose exposure of the preferential treatment being afforded to the then-General Secretary of the AIADMK, V K Sasikala, at Parappana Agrahara catapulted her onto the national stage in 2017.

“There is no oversight in prisons and so whatever jail officers do in a prison becomes the law,” she said, adding that systematic abuses are creating an ecosystem of injustice. It is a view corroborated by a senior official in the state government who has conducted surveys of prisons across the state.

The official, who declined to be identified, explained that the prison system has failed to implement or adhere to a series of guidelines made at the central level. 

“What the system has failed to take into consideration is that when an individual is condemned to prison, what is technically curtailed is only his or her power of movement. All other human rights remain protected by law,” he said. 

He added that surveys of prisons show a high degree of irregularities in the way inmates of various classes are treated. It is a statement borne out by the VIP treatment which was being handed out to Sasikala, whose current standard of living remains unknown. 

Most commentators agree that Roopa’s expose on Sasikala should have been a red line moment for prison reform - not least for the allegation that Rs 2 cr had allegedly changed hands to secure Sasikala’s preferential treatment. Instead, it resulted in Roopa’s transfer out of the Prisons Department within 18 working days.

When asked about the matter, Roopa, currently Inspector-General of Police, Railways, said she did not consider transfers as punishment and insisted that only a monitoring system can help change things. “Judges should get involved more,” she said.

One member of the judiciary who did involve himself was Judge P Krishna Bhat, who filed a scathing 21-page report, following a visit to the prison on September 26.

In his report, Judge Bhat, who is currently the Presiding Officer, Karnataka State Transport Appellate Tribunal, depicts a prison system where members of organised crime are in touch with their affiliates on the outside, where prisoners are deprived of a way to voice grievances, where the extortion of prisoners by jailers in exchange for basic services is common, and where apathetic healthcare services are given to inmates.

Criminal nexus

“Organised crimes have their origin in the Bengaluru Central prison itself. Gangsters, in possession of mobile phones and SIM cards, are in communication with their henchmen and are organising killings in the streets of the city,” Judge Bhat writes in his report.

In response, Bhat was informed by prison officials that there were 12 to 13 electronic jammers at the prison. When the judge investigated, he discovered that the outdated devices could only jam 2G phones. The report, which was submitted to the State Human Rights Commission on October 5, appeared to spur law enforcement into action — although the government denies this. On October 9, members of the Central Crime Branch swept into the prison to confiscate 37 knives, two cell phones, four SIM cards and marijuana.

“I was not aware of the report. We acted on a tip-off,” said Sandeep Patil, the Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime). 

Officially, prison officials maintain that the prison is running as it should. “The criminal nexus is always under check. We are maintaining vigilance against the hardcore criminals who are responsible for these things,” Bommai said. 

Judge Bhat’s report also points to the fact that there are just three full-time doctors to cater to the entire prison population, an arrangement which neglects emergency medical care at night.

Several prisoners that DH spoke to, also claimed that living space was so congested as to be intolerable. “The prison is overcrowded,” said an under-trial inmate, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution. “Toilet facilities are severely lacking. There are also water problems,” he added.

However, Bommai clarified that the government has sanctioned the building of a second prison in Bengaluru, ostensibly to tackle the overcrowding. He added that the infrastructure was also being expanded at Parappana Agrahara. 

Jailers meantime, had their own complaints. A junior officer who wanted to shield his identity described prison work as arduous and dangerous. 

“Work in the prison is a long sequence of monotony and depression punctuated by incidents of intense violence such as gang fights,” he said, adding that the situation is made worse by the fact that prison is understaffed. “Although the government has said it is training 777 wardens and 12 jailers for immediate deployment, we are still short-staffed,” he said.

The Prison Act mandates that a Board of Visitors, made up of judges, officials and social workers visit prisons on a regular basis to address prisoner and jailer grievances. A senior official said that none of the prisons in the state is implementing this in the manner mandated by law.

While the law also mandates that the Karnataka Legal Services Authority has to do weekly visits to prisoners, officers of the body said that just two camps had been conducted last year and none this year.

Law Minister J C Madhu Swamy expressed hope that the upcoming Prison Development Board would change things. “The proposal is with me. Within 15 days, it will be cleared and a committee will be formed. At the current time, however, there is no mechanism to address prisoner grievances, especially regarding bail,” he said.

It is a common refrain among prison officials that time will solve all matters. But for those caught in the grips of the system, time cannot pass quickly enough. For those fortunate enough to secure release, however, the future is a landscape full of promise. 

As prisoner Maniraju Krishnappa left the grounds of the premises, clutching only a bundle of clothes and a bag provided by prison officials, tears rolled down his cheek. “No one should ever come here. Such a place should not exist,” he said, wiping his eyes, and looking back at the prison one last time. 

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