Locked up behind iron bars, stuffed into the darkest corners of prison complexes, women prisoners in India face discrimination every day. From something as simple as recreation to something as complex as harassment and assault, many women prisoners live a life that is oppressive in most Indian jails.
The death of an inmate in Mumbai's Byculla prison raises many questions on whether anyone really cares what happens to women prisoners within the walls of Indian prisons. As in the case of Manjula Shetye, what if the jail staff are the perpetrators? Who do the women go to? We tried to find out.
"Any concerns that the women prisoners have should immediately be conveyed to warders. They are constable-like hail staff. Next level of escalation in head warder. If issues are not resolved then jailers and assistant superintendents may be approached. Senior jail officials go on routine visits. I make it a point to interact with the inmates to understand their concern and they can voice it out," said Roopa D, DIG, Prisons, Karnataka.
The senior IPS officer also added that social workers, NGO staff and members of missionaries and institutions like the Art of Living also visit jails. "We get information from social workers who visit jail as well," she said.
What if protectors are predators?
The protocol demands that prisoners raise any concern with jail authorities or inform senior police officers when they visit for inspection. But is it too little too late? Especially like in the case of Manjula Shetye where the perpetrators were none other than jail staff? There are no complaint boxes that allow women prisoners to fearlessly voice out their concerns.
"Women prisoners are not safe from harassment or assault in jails, be it physical or sexual. Where will they go? Some of the inmates are hand in glove with the prison authorities and allow exploitation. If anyone speaks up, they are threatened with consequences. They are denied food, clothes. We have heard from inmates stories of how they are stripped naked and are paraded, simply because other inmates want to have 'some fun'," said a woman activist attached with an NGO that visits the prisoners. She requested for her identity to be protected to ensure that the NGO does not face problems visiting prisons.
Their living conditions
The rules are well defined, unfortunately, they are in the books. "Incidentally, even in prisons, the first priority is given to male prisoners. Women have a smaller place, perhaps because they are also small in number but the place accorded to them is generally in one corner of the prison complex. Naturally, it is darker and there are lesser air and sunlight. Women prisoners run a higher risk of health problems," said IPS officer, Roopa D, DIG, Prisons, Karnataka.
She also highlighted how undertrial inmates in male prisons are allowed to play cricket every evening but women have little or no recreational facility. "Women prisoners play no cricket or volleyball. Most times there is no space to engage in physical activity. Some prisons do not have simple board games like Ludo and Snake and Ladder. Some prisons give women chess and carrom but these are skill games and not everyone can play," she added.
With practically nothing to keep their minds preoccupied with, the women, most who are victims of harassment themselves, are allowed to get further depressed.
Health is a concern too
Prevalence of HIV among some women prisoners and lack of medicines in prison hospitals is also a concern. While prisons doctors are appointed on a permanent basis and are expected to be on call like in any other hospital, the reality is different. In most prison hospitals, at least 3 or 4 doctors are appointed on a permanent basis. However, may prisoners have complained about how they work in shifts and abuse the system.
"Medicines are not available at times in the prison hospital. They are supposed to maintain a stock at any given point in time but much like any government office, loopholes exist," said a prison official.
Correctional attitude is missing
Yoga, reading, handloom weaving, basket weaving gardening, baking, ornament making, tailoring and beautician courses are prescribed for women inmates in jails across the country. However, most jails lack facilities to train these women in basket and handloom weaving. The tailoring and beautician courses serve no purpose since there are no clients who avail their services. While most prisons have no space for gardening, the library is underutilised since most convicts either have no habit or reading or the educational qualification is a limitation.