April was a cruel month for the Uttar Pradesh penal system. May has not been kind either. Riots broke out in four prisons across the state. Jailed men in Varanasi, Kaushambi, Deoria and Muzaffarnagar went on the rampage and attacked fellow inmates, jail staff and guards. Scores were injured in the fighting. During the April 2 riot at the district jail in Varanasi, the superintendent, Ashish Tiwari, was held hostage for about six hours and his deputy, who was severely thrashed, was admitted to hospital with serious injuries. Resentment had been simmering over several issues, including poor food, for a long time, but the immediate provocation for the riot was apparently rumours of prisoners being beaten up by guards. According to reports, the April 15 brawl in Kaushambi was provoked when security guards ‘asked’ prisoners for a ‘suvidha shulk’ on Ram Navami. No doubt for the privilege of guarding them well. The prisoners refused and the guards beat them up. During the April 26 incident at Deoria district jail, prisoners were meting out their own brand of justice to a fellow inmate they suspected of being an informant. The guards intervened and the subsequent melee left 33—including nine prison officials—injured. On May 6, what started out as a heated exchange of verbal abuse between two gangs at the Muzaffarnagar jail soon escalated into a bloody fight in which razor blades, sticks and iron rods were freely used. Twelve prisoners and a guard were injured.
A high-level inquiry committee is probing the reasons for the fracas in the Varanasi jail. That is usual. Prison staff have been transferred. That too is usual. No doubt there will be some repercussions for the inmates: beatings, deprivations, solitary confinement, more criminal cases filed against them, and other punishments of which the press will not speak. That too is usual. All these incidents will soon fade from the news and the back story will remain untold.
That story is to be found in the overall condition of prisons across India. The Varanasi jail is probably typical of jails in Uttar Pradesh, indeed, across most of the country, where most prisons are old, overcrowded, short-staffed and neglected by the administration. The Varanasi facility was built in 1853—that’s four years before the 1857 uprising. It is crammed full with almost twice the number of inmates that it can properly house and has just two-thirds of the staff it needs. Overcrowding puts sleeping pallets, shelter, water to cook with, drink and bathe in, sanitation and medical care, all under heavy strain. Just 18 per cent of the inmates are convicts. Eighty-two per cent are undertrials awaiting the end of some ongoing investigation or plodding through their trial. Uttar Pradesh’s figures for undertrial prisoners are well above the national average.
Most are poor, migrants, day labourers. There are women and juveniles whose age is under dispute and awaiting resolution. Some are mentally ill. Many will stay in for well beyond a reasonable time because they are unable to post bail for want of sureties or because they can’t provide a local or permanent address. While awaiting trial, many will succumb to tuberculosis or HIV because they are at a much higher risk than the average population of the same age outside jail. Many will have missed their court dates for lack of police escort. Others will have gone to court only to be left without food or water for the whole hot day in a crowded court lock-up, without being produced before the magistrate, only to be taken back to the jail in the evening—though court records may well show that they have been produced before the magistrate.
The jail administration is hardly better off. Prison warders and supervisors are ill-trained, ill-paid, ill-housed and desperately short-handed. This is a system where the senior ranks are inexplicably drawn exclusively from the police service. People stay in the same rank for absurdly long periods. Careers stagnate, with years without promotion destroying all initiative and motivation. There is little chance of picking up skills or modern techniques of any kind.
It’s not just the prisoners who are subjected to terrible conditions. For middle- and lower-level staff , a jail posting is stressful and brutalising.
More overcrowding and high staff shortage means all jail life is controlled by security. Inmates are tightly regimented and locked up in unsanitary barracks for unreasonably long hours—sometimes from as early as three or four in the afternoon. What goes on there is left to the gods—and the convict warders, who by default rule the roost and are relied upon by the jailers. They are the toughs, the discipliners and fixers for every illegal and prohibited activity. Everything comes at a price, including who gets to meet their visitors, for how long and who gets to go out to their court dates.
iF one has money or muscle, one can buy a modicum of comfort and safety, but there will be empire, with rulers and subjects. Toughs take their toll, warders their cut. Gangs and exploitation pervade. Violence is never far away. It is neither a pretty scene nor is it new. The February 2015 riot in the Kannauj district jail was lit by the death of an inmate in a toilet “in suspicious circumstances”. Not at all unusual. The Uttar Pradesh jails minister sanguinely ascribed the recent Varanasi riot to “widespread corruption”. He should know, but it is possible to imagine that another reason could be long-term inhumane conditions and utter neglect by his administration.
In Uttar Pradesh, while the prison population has risen 55 per cent in a decade, the vacancy levels of jail staff have also gone upward from 45 per cent in 2010 to over 52 per cent in 2014. Requests under the right to information (RTI) about whether boards of visitors (BoV)—that are supposed to be watchdogs for jails everywhere—have ever been appointed or are meeting regularly, or at all, have gone unanswered and answers are not to be found on the government’s website either. These BoVs include seniors from the local administration and people of good standing from the community. They must meet regularly, visit prisons frequently and suggest improvements. This system provides a window into the prisons’ closed world of pain and sorrow. But none of this happens.
Prisons are a state subject. To ease overcrowding, the Centre has handed out modernisation grants for over two decades. When the money has actually been used, it has mostly gone into building new jails or repairing old ones. But overcrowding continues. Little or nothing has gone into building the administration’s skills or righting injustices to both jailers and the jailed. Nor is anyone in a hurry to sort things out. The laws that govern prisons in Uttar Pradesh have not changed for decades. New model acts and rules have been floating around since 1980s with ineffective spurts in 1996 and 2003. Officials work in separate committees and there has been no attempt to synchronise what they do. Meanwhile, prisons are run by the outmoded 1894 Prisons Act.
Perhaps appalled by the inexcusable illegality, the overcrowding, violence and neglect in jails across the nation, the Supreme Court, in the aptly named ‘Re: Inhuman conditions in 1,382 prisons’ case, took upon itself the task of correcting some of the neglect in prisons across the country and created a committee to monitor undertrials in each district across the country. It ordered state prisons to make sure that “there is proper and effective utilisation of available funds so that the living conditions of the prisoners is commensurate with human dignity”. Most states have yet to report to the court. So far, only three states have bothered. Uttar Pradesh certainly has not.
The conditions that led to prison riots in Varanasi and elsewhere exist in every state. They are the outcome of a failed system that includes not only ministries, but also the bureaucracy, the upper management in the jail administration and such bodies as state human rights commissions and courts. It is unfair to expose jail staff to the high risks created by inmate frustration and—even if it’s difficult for the layperson to care about the condition of undertrials—at least to wish upon society a returning population of bitter and hardened former prisoners.
(Maja Daruwala is director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a Delhi-based international NGO.)
Other than the brutal system that administers prisons, jail inmates have to live under the hegemony of gangs operating inside the jails, usually made up of hardened criminals. Even Tihar, supposedly better than other jails in India, is not free of them. Last year, a riot broke out in Tihar jail between the so-called ‘Chavanni’ and ‘Beedi’ gangs. It brought to light the gangs in operations inside the reputed, high-security prison.