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Mumbai’s Prison Protest Highlights the Cruel Custodial Practices in Jails

Reports of torture and even deaths in women’s jails are all too common, despite the Supreme Courts’s strictures.

Representational image. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The horror stories coming out of Mumbai’s Byculla Women’s Prison highlight unspeakable indignities and torture of its inmates. Convicted prisoner Manjula Shetye – cited earlier for good behaviour – was allegedly stripped and brutally assaulted, with lathis inserted in her private parts. She later succumbed to injuries. According to the post-mortem report from J.J. Hospital, the Shetye’s lungs had been damaged and several contusion marks were found all over her body.

Her apparent ‘crime’ was that she had protested about eggs and bread.

After she collapsed and died, other inmates protested. Refusing to be silenced, they climbed the prison roof, shouting slogans and burning newspapers, drawing the attention of the outside world.

Reportage on the matter saw the spotlight on media entrepreneur Indrani Mukherjee, who, along with 200 other prisoners, was booked for rioting inside the prison. Now she too has complained about being beaten with batons.

In my experience as a prisoners’ rights activist and researcher, this is not a one off incident. Torture continues unabated inside prisons across the country and often goes completely unreported and unrecorded.  One such instance is a case of custodial rape and torture that I came across in Sheikhpura Prison in 2015 while conducting prison inspection in Bihar under the aegis of the Bihar State Legal Services Authority.

A woman prisoner had alleged that she was raped by a prison staff when she was alone inside the women’s ward, while the only other inmate of the ward had gone to court. She was then put under constant pressure to withdraw her complaint against the prison staff. A few months later, as a punishment for not withdrawing rape allegations, she was dragged out of the women’s ward, stripped naked and beaten senseless by other prison staff, in the full view of male inmates. Later the male inmates went on a fast and a second FIR of custodial torture was filed against the members of the prison administration.

The case of custodial rape and torture was then subjected to systemic silencing and structural repression meted through extensive procedural negligence and delay. The police delayed filing of the chargesheet by over a year thus resulting in delays in court proceedings. This was followed by bad lawyering. The prisoner couldn’t afford a private lawyer and no legal aid lawyer wanted to take up the matter of the prisoner.

The biggest problem of combating custodial torture perpetrated inside prisons is of course that the victim remains in the custody of the perpetrator. Most cases of torture and ill treatment go unreported because prisoners fear repercussions after filing complaint. It is also difficult to prove custodial torture, even when other prisoners witness it, since they too live in the custody of the same perpetrators. When a complaint is filed, tremendous pressure is created to withdraw statements if any inquiry is initiated. In Bihar too several inmates who had reported incidents of custodial torture to me during the inspections withdraw their statements later.

On my various visits to prisons I have observed a common malpractice. Convicted prisoners are used by prison staff to inflict torture on other inmates. In such cases, when a complaint is filed against the incident, the prison administrations pass it off as a clash among prisoners thus putting the onus of the custodial violence on the prisoners.

Prisoners live under inhuman conditions, in over-crowded wards, where they remain locked up from sundown to sunrise. Given the size of a prison, typically 50-60 inmates can stay in a ward, but the number of inmates far exceed the capacity. The wards have one inbuilt toilet, usually with no running water. To avoid the stench some inmates decide not to use the toilets during lock up hours.

In 2015, in Araria prison female ward, which had the capacity of two inmates, 23 women had been jailed on the day of inspection, including an 80-year-old lady who was physically infirm. There wasn’t enough space to sleep in the ward, so inmates slept in turns during the lock up hours while others waited for their turn.

The situation in over-crowded prison worsens with rising temperatures. One can only imagine the condition of aged prisoners, lactating mothers, children (below 6 years) who stay with their mothers, disabled prisoners or those who are ill in these conditions.

Medical facilities are far from adequate and quality of prison food is far below the recommended standard. I had met a prisoner who had been treated for tuberculosis but was still coughing up blood. But because his course of medication was over he was sent to stay in the over-crowded ward. Other prisoners refused to keep him in their ward but they had to give in eventually. Perhaps the prisoner was suffering from multiple drug resistance tuberculosis and was a risk to himself and all other inmates. I have witnessed prisoners suffering from chicken pox kept in overcrowded wards putting the others at risk. There was an infamous case in Bihar of prisoners suffering from TB being kept in the same ward that housed prisoners who were HIV positive. (This practice was immediately stopped after the prison inspection).

Three meals are provided each day, with dinner being provided before lock up hours. The inmates stash dinner in the ward to eat in the night. Sometimes food goes bad due to high humidity or due to rodent infestation. Sometimes a dinner plate over turns in an over-crowded ward and a fight breaks out.

Such appalling living conditions coupled with lack of legal aid or a delay in trial can only aggravate the horrors behind bars. Under these high stress situations, a prisoner unrest can break out against the prison administration over anything. There is no dearth of issues to complain about.

When resentment brews against the administration, convicts are used as pawns in the hands of the prison staff. Unlike the undertrial prisoner (UTP) whose fate is decided by the trying court, convicted prisoners remain at the mercy of the prison administration. The fate of the convict in terms of his liberty, through parole (temporary leave from prison) and remission (sentence reduction), is largely dependent on the recommendation of the prison officials.

On an average 70% of the inmates are UTP. It must be noted here that by sending convicts to control the UTP who is in majority, is to expose the convict to a vulnerable situation. No law requires the UTP to abide by the orders of the convict and inevitably clashes break out. If a convict refuses to follow the prison officials’ orders, then it is recorded as a negative conduct. For ‘good conduct’ read ‘obedience towards the prison officials’.

During the year 2015, Prison Statistics of India reported 118 unnatural deaths and 187 incidents of clashes/group clashes, in which nine inmates were killed and 201 inmates were injured.

The apex court has time and again addressed the issue of custodial torture. In 2015, the Supreme Court bench comprising of the former Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur and Justice R. Banumathi, in an order dated 24.07.15 in the matter of Dilip K. Basu Vs. State of West Bengal, re-established certain checks and measures to prevent custodial torture. Justice Thakur cited from the judgement: “custodial torture as a naked violation of human dignity and degradation that destroys self-esteem of the victim and does not even spare his personality. Custodial torture the Court observed is a calculated assault on human dignity and whenever human dignity is wounded, civilisation takes a step backwards”. In paragraph 30 of the order, the bench maintained that criminal proceedings would be initiated against those in whose custody the victim has died or suffered injuries or torture.

The court further ordered all state governments to install CCTV cameras in all prisons as a check against torture and to appoint non-official visitors to conduct surprise visits to prisons and police stations.

But cameras can malfunction and footage can be tampered with. Surprise visits by non-official visitors conducted on a regular basis is a better measure. There are grievance-redressal boxes inside prisons. Those boxes must be regularly checked by the members of the judiciary and the grievances addressed with sincerity. Prison is an opaque institution and prisoners are rendered voiceless in the prison system. To torture a prisoner behind bars is both cruel and inhuman.

Shetye’s death triggered a protest because of the sheer brutality of her torture and her subsequent death. But unless the authorities take strict action against the perpetrators and put systems that prevent such incidents from taking place again, this will not be the last incident of custodial torture.

Smita Chakraburtty is an independent researcher of prison related issues.