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Mumbai: On November 23, around 8-10 undertrial prisoners from four different blocks of the high-security prison in Ajmer district went on a hunger strike. The prison authorities at the high-walled prison, which houses around 65 “highly dangerous” prisoners, had abruptly cut off the electricity supply to the prison. Prisoners were cooped up in a small enclosed space for more than 16 hours every day with no lights or fans, and protests broke out in the jail.
Petitions were sent to the prison authorities; phone calls and letters were written to lawyers. The director-general of prisons was informed too. But their pleas went unanswered. The prison authorities had made up their minds – no electricity supply in winters. Dejected, the prisoners finally gave up on their hunger strike on the fifth day.
Since then, the prisoners have been held in their cells with no power supply.
The Ajmer high-security prison, built in 2015, can accommodate 264 prisoners. Prisoners – both convicted and pretrial detainees – from across different districts of Rajasthan, who are considered a “threat” or “vulnerable to outside threats”, are moved here. The prison and police department commonly term them as “hardcore criminals”. The Rajasthan prison manual, however, doesn’t define the term “hardcore” or speak of any special arrangements to be made for those the state considers a threat. The decision is mainly taken by the state police and prison authorities, and there are no set criteria to assess the perceived threat.
The decision to disconnect the power supply in the prison first came in November 2019. One of the prisoners, who has been lodged here for the past four years, told The Wire that the supply would be cut off around November and all four blocks inside the high-security jail would be shrouded in darkness right until February. “It gets very cold here. So, the understanding is since you don’t need fans running, the power supply could be snapped in winters,” the prisoner, in his mid 20s, said.
But this forced power outage means that once the prisoners retire into their cells after the sunset, they have to live in darkness. “And we spend our nights desperately waiting for the morning light,” one prisoner shared.
Located in the outskirts of Ajmer city, it is common to spot a snake or scorpion in the prison premises. “Snake catchers have to be called every other week,” shared one prisoner, who has spent close to nine months in this jail. “In this period at least five snakes were caught,” he claimed. And the threat of being bitten by a venomous reptile increases manifold in the night time, when there is no light.
Like any other prison in the state, before the COVID-19 pandemic broke in India last March, visitors were allowed to meet their relatives and friends in the prison. But the extraordinary infection called for “extraordinary orders”. All prison meetings were suspended. An Ajmer-based lawyer, who is representing at least three prisoners lodged in the high-security prison, said he has spoken to his clients in the past two years but has been unable to meet them. “All my three clients are from neighbouring districts. Anyway, families don’t come to meet as often. I was denied permission too for physical meetings,” the lawyer said.
Names of both the lawyer and prisoners have been withheld at their request. The Wire was able to speak to over a dozen prisoners through their lawyers on the ‘STD call services’ allowed to them on a weekly basis.
The prison houses people booked in some high-profile cases. While some were moved here for allegedly running their “extortion business” or other criminal activities while in jail, others, the police claimed, were not safe in the earlier prison and needed to be moved to a more secure space.
Moving to the high-security prison meant that the prisoners’ contact with the outside world was completely cut off. The prison lacks video conferencing services. And for the most part of the pandemic, the prisoners were not ferried to the courts – mostly located in other districts – for trial. One prisoner, who belongs to a neighbouring north Indian state and is facing trial in a murder case, told The Wire that since his arrest in early 2019, he has been to the Jaipur court where his trial is held only twice. “Every 14 days, when I am supposed to be produced before the court, the prison authorities tell the court that escort service is not available to move a high-profile prisoner. The court accepts it as ground and adjourns the matter for another 14 days,” the prisoner, who was earlier lodged at Kota, claimed.
The one from Kota said that he was moved out after he argued with the prison officials. “I wanted access to the prison manual. I started petitioning them, even filing applications under the Right to Information Act. This was looked at as an act of insubordination and I was moved to Ajmer,” he said. Like him, he added, there are several more who have been moved to the high-security confinement only because they “asserted their rights”.
The non-official visitors (NOV) appointed to monitor the prison functioning have not visited the Ajmer prison since its conception, the prisoners alleged. The district judge, assigned to visit the prison and hear their grievances, has not met the prisoners in years, some added. “The prison authorities block every source of redressal. There is absolutely no way our grievances can be heard,” one person, facing incarceration for close to three years, shared.
At a time when the high-security prison became functional in 2015, there was no electricity supply. One of the prisoners, through his lawyer, had to move the Jodhpur bench of the Rajasthan high court to get an electricity connection.
The prison, when it was set up, had some recreational games like chess and carrom made available to the prisoners. But those have been stopped too. The television set too has been switched off since the electricity was snapped off. The prisoners say, with no mobility or access to any games or entertainment, most of those incarcerated here are “depressed”. At least three prisoners have allegedly died by suicide in the prison in the past year. “Imagine seeing faces of people who are just as depressed as you day in and day out. Even the strongest among us would be pushed to such dire straits,” a prisoner, who has spent 18 months in the Ajmer high-security prison, said.
The Wire tried contacting Malini Agarwal, the Rajasthan additional director general (prisons), but couldn’t get through. The story will be updated when she replies.