Notes from a jail cell
Jails are meant to be places where people are confined as punishment for crimes. But, according to this inmate, women prisoners are treated differently — and worse — than men
Angela Sontakey is a prisoner in Byculla jail. Allegedly a Maoist, the former sociology professor was arrested and incarcerated in April 2012. She was previously lodged at the Nagpur Central Jail and Gondia sub-jail before being moved to Byculla.
Last year, she went on a to protest the proposed installation of CCTV cameras in the women’s cell area. In a handwritten interview to The Hindu , mediated by her lawyers, she speaks of conditions inside the jail and problems faced by women prisoners. She cautions, “I am writing from my limited access, experiences and understanding.” Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
What is the condition of women prisoners in the Byculla and Nagpur jail? What are the problems faced by women prisoners?
In Byculla, as well as the Nagpur jail, there are many restrictions on the movement of women prisoners as compared to the male prisoners. While men can go freely to the judicial department, women cannot. They have to rely on the women prison staff to get information.
Women’s bodies are always at the centre whenever a man is around. There is this obnoxious practice, in which on the first day when a woman inmate has to present herself [called ‘mulayaja’] before the superintendent of the jail, she is ordered to remove her footwear and is forced to cover her head with a pallu or dupatta. When asked why, different answers were given. One woman jailor said, it is our culture. Another officer reasoned it is to maintain discipline. A third denied that this practice exists.
In the Nagpur prison, if a man is going to come to the woman’s section, the women are shoved away and hoarded in a corner. I have seen a middle-aged woman who wore a salwar-kameez to attend court being asked to change into a sari by the prison staff.
Then, the quantity of soap given to men and women is the same for both bathing soap and for washing clothes. Women get their monthly periods; it must be taken into account and women must get more soap to clean themselves and their clothes. There is always a lack of napkins: from March 2014, six napkins were given every month; this quantity is not sufficient. Those who are given the task of distribution are either not present or they say that napkins are in short supply. Earlier, the staff asked inmates to strip to show if they are menstruating. This practice was stopped after complaints.
Then there is ‘open zadti’ [in which an inmate is examined naked], censorship of newspapers, lack of reading material in jail and no PCO facility.
Do you notice a difference in the way male and female prisoners are treated?
The quantity of food given to male and female prisoners differs. The attitude is that women eat less than men. We demand that women must be given equal quantity of food. On the one hand it is said that 90 per cent of Indian women are anaemic and on the other hand we see this stark disparity.
We can also see the difference in what men and women are taught in prisons. In Nagpur jail, men are taught carpentry, leadership development, how to deliver speeches, etc. Women are taught typical ‘womanly’ things like sewing, knitting, embroidery, rangoli, painting and making decorative items, and beauty parlour services. The only exception is the computer classes run by an NGO.
What is the condition of children of women inmates in the jail?
Children above six years’ old are put in children’s homes, but mothers who have no one to look after their children bring them along. Most of these are Bangladeshi women.
While the food given to children may seem sufficient for the small ones, some of the [older] children are left hungry. Children have got up in the middle of the night crying of hunger. In 2011, they were given pav (bread) to eat, but it was suddenly stopped in 2012.
There are small balwadis outside the prison. Sometimes NGOs give clothes, plastic plates, mugs, glasses. It is painful to see the children part with these when they have to leave. We see children playing ‘bandi-bandi’ [prisoner-prisoner], but never ‘teacher-teacher’, even though they go to school; such is the impact on their impressionable minds. In Byculla jail, there is no playground for children. They are confined to a small area, already overcrowded.
How do prison inmates meet their daily needs?
There is a price for everything. If there are messages to be passed on, mulakat [meeting with family] to be organised, its time increased, clothing or special food items to be obtained, hospital visits and escort guards to be arranged, there is a price.
The authorities steal from the inmates when they come from the court or hospital during zadti [checking]. They take oil, bananas, jaggery and groundnuts from pregnant women; eggs, milk and clothes meant for children and patients, things we buy from the canteen with our own money, essential items given by NGOs. Relatives and friends coming to meet the inmates are asked to ‘put something in the plastic’. They even take away notebooks of some creative inmates in which they might have written poems.
Being a prisoner, it is difficult to prove on paper, but it doesn’t require much effort to know that a money order for an inmate is not recorded in the register.
Class difference is obvious. Rich inmates get more facilities; they can bend the rules and are treated like VIPs. Poor inmates are abused and treated like animals. In 2012, a barrack of Circle 1 was vacated early in the morning because a high-profile murder accused did not want anyone except her maids.
Self-proclaimed god-women, claiming to ward off evil, also get special treatment for the jail staff.
Have you noticed any instances of abuse in jail?
Inmates are set against each other to divide them. Habitual criminals are used by the staff to control other inmates. They dictate terms and are more like the extended staff.
Only those who are on good terms with the authorities, those who spy for them, pay them or abuse other inmates for them are allowed to go out freely. Beatings have become regular for the last two years. Inmates are either silenced or forced to give false statements. [Fellow inmate] Varsha was forced to say she fell down when she was taken to the JJ hospital.
Prison authorities keep a watch on those who put complaint letters in the box [to] the DIG, IG, judge or superintendent and threaten them. They also take out complaint letters from the boxes by putting a long thin iron stick through the slit of the box. From April 2 to 25, 2015, I was kept in a separate barrack as punishment because I protested the installation of CCTV cameras.
Inmates are not produced in courts for months on end. Any small reason is enough to say that guards won’t be available: a cricket match, visit by a dignitary, festivals, even rainfall. Inmates have made requests to the authorities, revolted individually and called strikes to draw attention to this problem, but it is still there. On December 26, 2011, women prisoners went on a day-long strike to demand escort guards for court dates.