Death of Inmate at Mumbai Jail Highlights 'Internal Rot and Impunity' of Penal System

Former inmates have alleged serious violations like assault by guards, and deteriorating hygiene and living conditions, but authorities deny the claims.

New Delhi: The death of an inmate lodged at Mumbai’s Byculla jail for women after allegedly being beaten up by a woman official last week has brought to the surface the everyday instances of violence and neglect towards basic facilities in prisons.

According to Indian Express, 45-year-old Manjula Shetye died on the night of June 23 at the state-run J.J. Hospital.

Her death sparked a riot at the jail the next day, with inmates resorting to violence and damaging prison property, for which the Nagpada police later booked over 200 inmates.

Former inmates and families of women currently lodged in Byculla jail have alleged frequent beatings at the hands of guards and gross neglect towards basic hygiene, with one describing life there as “hell”.

“After being sent there on and off for six years, I never want do anything that will send me there.”

According to the Indian Express report, the Byculla jail for women is housed within the larger jail, which was formerly only for men. Male police personnel and officers are also posted there. A former inmate claimed that authorities impose restrictions on women inmates since there is a male prison as well, making it difficult for women to access the superintendent or the common staff doctor. “One has to approach the junior-rung officials many times to even get out of the women’s wing,” she told the Indian Express.

Until 2002, Byculla was a male prison. A substantial increase in female prisoners in the Arthur Road jail that year, which had a separate women’s barrack, led authorities to transfer them to Byculla, which total can house 365 – including 165 women.

According to prison officials, however, there continues to be severe overcrowding, with at least 250 women lodged.

A woman who was recently released on bail after two months in jail told the Indian Express, “The guards hit you in full view of other inmates to scare them, and it is always five or six guards who gang up to overpower the women.”

Six guards – who women claim had created a climate of terror in the jail – have been booked for the murder of Shetye and a probe is being conducted by the Mumbai Police Crime Branch into her death, PTI reported.

According to a former inmate, the policewomen informally appoint three monitors in each barracks. “The guards get all their work done through the monitors,” she told Indian Express. “The monitors decided what time we wake up and go to sleep.”

Maharashtra’ minister of state for home Ranjit Patil on Wednesday, June 28, told the Hindustan Times that Shetye’s death was “completely avoidable had there been an immediate intervention on part of the jail authorities”.

“Now, responsibility will be fixed for lapses and once the investigation is completed, some big officers might be suspended as well in the near future,”

Countering reports of Shetye being assaulted and allegation levied by former inmates, Bhushan Kumar Upadhyay, additional director general of police, told Indian Express, “Jail guards only use force in case they are assaulted by prisoners. There are also CCTV cameras everywhere in the jail.”

Recently released women, however, have claimed that guards ensure that women are beaten in corners that aren’t covered by CCTV cameras and if they complain to a visiting authority, “staffers resort to violence after they are gone,” one inmate said.

Apart from the everyday violence, basic necessities like sanitary napkins, soap and even water are a luxury in the jail. The food given to the inmates, like rice and paav, is filled with worms with women resorting to eating just rice with water, a relative of a woman currently in the Mumbai jail claimed.

“We get a limited supply [of water] each day. We fill two drums in each barrack for bathing, washing and drinking,” an inmate told Indian Express.

Some have even alleged that they are forced to clean the guards’ living quarters and wash their clothes.

Sanjoy Hazarika, the director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which on Wednesday demanded a judicial inquiry into the incident, said that Shetye’s death reflected the “internal rot and impunity” that characterises the country’s penal system.

The Bombay high court had ordered a prisons reform committee while hearings petitions on the conditions of jails in the state, and a resolutions was passed on June 1 for its formation.

One of the five of its members, Vijay Raghavan of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said, “The committee is yet to meet. Its terms of references are wide including working on reforms in tune with UN conventions, the Model prison manual, 2016 to bring about changes in the existing prison system.”

(With agency inputs)

Join The Discussion