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Vulnerability, illiteracy, neglect: A heart-wrenching snapshot from a women’s prison in India

This excerpt from the new book 'Hope Behind Bars' takes us into the personal spaces of women incarcerated in jails in India, cut off from basic human dignities and bereft of support from the outside world.

A new book of essays Hope Behind Bars: Notes from Indian Prisons (Macmillan, Rs 599) delves into the sordid realities of those incarcerated in Indian jails. Edited by human-rights activist Sanjoy Hazarika and lawyer-activist Madhurima Dhanuka, the book shows how our prison systems are woefully inadequate when it comes to rehabilitating criminals and preventing crime.

On the contrary, due to the long years of incarceration for undertrials and the secondary long-term effect on children whose parents are incarcerated, our prison system may be further compounding crime in the country.

The essays look at case studies from prisons across India, including in places where state machinery is used to stifle dissent and to garner votes for politicians, and border areas where prisoner ranks include young refugees fleeing persecution in their own countries.

This excerpt below, taken from the chapter ‘The World of Prisons’, takes us into the personal spaces of women behind bars, cut off from basic human dignities and bereft of support from the outside world.

By Sugandha Shankar and Sabika Abbas

The women’s enclosure is usually just separate smaller sections in predominantly male-only jails. It generally consists of a few barracks subject to a fewer number of women prisoners. Though it may have a children’s crèche, women prisoners do not have access to the facilities available in the men’s section like the common playground, places of worship, library, kitchen, hospital, legal aid clinic, et cetera.

There are very few prisons where there is proper segregation between undertrials and convicts in women enclosures owing to the inadequate space. The atmosphere is emotionally charged, and at times, chaotic and loud. In our experience, the visit to a women’s section is most heart-wrenching, possibly as we can relate to being a woman or maybe because the institution’s apathy towards the special needs of women is quite evident. However, greater bonding among women is observed where children are staying with their mothers due to the collective caregiving towards the children.

What makes women more vulnerable than men? The dual vulnerability of women inmates is visible from the fact that they are living in a prison inside a prison. Interaction with many women inmates threw light on the ostracization and victimization faced by them in society.

Society’s expectations from a woman are so high that stepping into a jail leaves a lifelong taboo on them, even after being eventually acquitted. So much so that their family does not visit them as often, does not allow a child to meet the mother, justifying it with negative influence on a child’s development, or at times, cuts all ties and leaves them at the mercy of fate.

Also read: “The criminal justice system in South Asia is not neutral or objective but is discriminatory and violent”

Fellow women prisoners and officials often guide and support the new entrants in the absence of an official counsellor and help them adjust to their new life. Lack of awareness about one’s own body, needs and rights is also common among many women prisoners. Experiencing menstruation in a closed, crowded space away from the comforts of the home can also be stressful.

All over the world, women account for almost two-thirds (496 million) of illiterate adults worldwide. In India, 68 per cent of illiterate adults are women. Illiteracy and lack of knowledge about legal procedures are common among women inmates.

One incident that keeps coming back to mind is when an old woman could not tell us anything about her case or lawyer. When asked if she had ever seen or met her lawyer in court, she said, “Kaun vakil, kaun judge, sab to kale coat wale hain, mujhe na pata mera kaun sa” (All I can see are people in black coats, I do not know who is my lawyer or judge).

There were also situations where we felt helpless. We came across a unique situation in a central prison where a woman doctor, who was also the medical officer in prison, stopped going to the women’s section due to the unruly behaviour of inmates.

Read also: One woman and a project to educate 4 million youth about child sexual abuse

In another prison, where a women’s enclosure was limited to a big room and a small backyard, a mother of a three-month-old girl child suffered from severe depression, and fellow inmates had to save the child from the brunt of her mother’s anger. One can document, try to understand the issue, and approach authorities for some relief, but cannot find a solution to every problem.

Since prisons predominantly house male inmates, their residential area is much bigger than that of women inmates and forms almost all of the inside of a prison. Though undertrials and convicts stay in separate barracks, the design of a prison does not generally allow to maintain strict segregation as required under the law between first-time and repeat offenders, or young and old.

Indian prisons have barracks and wards, and few cells. It essentially means that one has to get used to staying with unknown persons, no privacy and solitude. There is no assigned place to keep belongings, and one has to hang their clothes and other items in handbags.

It is ironic that inside these barracks, everything works based on trust among individuals who are distrusted by society.

Excerpted from Hope Behind Bars: Notes from Indian Prisons (2022) with permission from Macmillan India

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