Jails in India are driving people to insanity and death

By Syed Nazakat

Sunlight bounces off the razor wires that stretch into flat fields where gun-toting guards are posted. They turn and stare, as the iron gate clangs shut behind us. We have just entered one of the notorious and highly guarded prisons in India-the Agra Central Jail. Inside, prisoners are locked up in crowded barracks. On the main block, 140 prisoners are jammed in a single barrack whose capacity is just 65. Some kneel in a narrow open space between two high walls to avoid heat waves, as sunlight beats directly down on them. In one corner of the compound, some prisoners are held in solitary confinement because, as an officer said, they are too dangerous to mix with others. At the high-security ward, inmates are locked up separately in a 23-hour-a-day lockdown. The lights in these cells never go off, although they may be dimmed a bit at night. They call it “no-touch torture”.

Most inmates here are undertrials, some as young as 20. They describe the barracks as congested and filthy rooms, with an open space in one corner serving as the toilet. The conditions are appalling: they are left to sleep in sweltering temperatures, with no access to daily showers, and subjected to frequent sexual abuse by other prisoners. “A good day,” says one of them, “is when I get up and get water for shower and don’t get beaten up or raped.”

Lately, prisoners have frequently rioted over deaths of fellow inmates. A year ago, the superintendent here was suspended after two inmates were found dead, with one leaving a suicide note alleging that he had been routinely beaten and humiliated, since he had not bribed some of the officers. The other had died of lack of medical care.

The shocking death of an infant happened two years ago. Boby, an undertrial, gave birth to a child inside the prison toilet. The baby died of infection a week later. The inquest report from the superintendent tried to hide the delivery in toilet and the cause of death. But a magisterial inquiry has now found that the woman was not medically examined at the time of admission and was denied medical care in time. The National Human Rights Commission has told the Uttar Pradesh government to pay her Rs 1 lakh as relief.

Estimates say 500 prisoners suffer from malaria, TB, cancer and mental illnesses in the Agra jail. There is shortage of medicine and no help for mental health problems, says Ambaresh Gaur, a senior superintendent praised for his ‘jailcraft’-an ability to stay calm and in control during fraught situations. There is no doctor qualified to prescribe antipsychotic drugs and other medications that could calm mentally ill detainees and perhaps reduce the guards’ use of physical restraints. “If timely medical help is rendered, many deaths can be prevented,” says Gaur. There are just 60 doctors for over 82,000 prisoners in the state.

In the last five years, according to the Asian Centre for Human Rights report, there have been 7,468 prison and custodial deaths in India, an average of four a day. The NHRC, headed by former Chief Justice of India S. Rajendra Babu, says 1,662 prisoners died in 2008 alone.

The commission hears complaints of torture, overcrowding, gang violence and stripping. In the last five years, it directed payment of compensation amounting to Rs 1 crore to kin of victims in 75 cases of custodial deaths. Says Babu: “Prison authorities often hide facts about deaths in prison. But we have given clear guidelines to all the states to honour the rights of prisoners.”

Custodial deaths should be reported to the commission within 24 hours, postmortems should be filmed and magisterial inquiry ordered into. But not many states follow these instructions. “Prison administration is a state subject, and this is often cited as the main reason for the Centre not being able to implement the recommendations,” says S. Boloria, a Supreme Court advocate.

With 3,73,271 men and women locked up in 1,336 jails with a total capacity of 2,63,911, prisons in India are more overcrowded than ever before. There are 11,835 prisoners in Tihar against the capacity of 6,250, says the prison’s web site. In the last two years, 44 prisoners have died in Tihar. The prison authorities have defended the deaths by saying there was nothing untoward about them, no violence or brutality, and all were “natural” and some died “due to the intense heat conditions”.

Built in 1958, Tihar has nine prisons, eight in the Tihar complex and one in Rohini. Majority of the inmates here are trapped by a cumbersome judicial process that keeps suspects imprisoned as undertrials. Prison officials, however, love to show off how over the years the prison has transformed into a place that even criminals have ceased to fear. There is better food, good hygiene and effective rehabilitation programmes. But scratch the surface, and you get the other side of the picture, which reveals that there is something drastically wrong with our prison system.

In ward 7 of prison 3, drug addicts and the mentally unstable prisoners gather in groups, where their stories reveal widely varying degrees of access to medical care. We met Chand Mohammad, who is HIV positive. Chand, a resident of Shahdara area of Delhi, was convicted of rape three years ago. Shockingly, no medical examination, which includes blood and HIV tests, was conducted on him. Neglected until now, Chand was given some lifesaving drugs when his conditions worsened. “My health is failing and I fear that I will not survive this summer,” says Chand, who, as a convict, has the right to treatment at a hospital of his choice at his own expense. But, he says, doctors say it is too late to seek medical help.

According to the modern jail manual, every jail should have doctors, daily inspection and emergency health care facilities. But Dr Murli Karnam, who was appointed by the Andhra Pradesh State Human Rights Commission to survey the condition of prisons in the state, was shocked by the appalling condition: “Deaths in prisons have been rising over the last few years due to the dearth of doctors and medical facilities. One-fourth of these deaths take place on way to hospital.” None of the state jails for women have gynaecologists.

Infighting between prisoners is another concern. As recently as April 6, eight prisoners were injured in clashes between rival groups, who used blades, iron strips and pipes. The police trivialised the issue, saying the fight was over a corner space to sleep. Last year, eight people died in violence that a prison official calls “a slow-motion riot”.

Moddu Seenu was bludgeoned to death in Anantapur prison in Andhra Pradesh on November 10, 2008. Police said a cellmate hit Seenu with a dumbbell after he refused to switch off lights. Others see more to it, as Seenu was the main accused in the murder of Telugu Desam Party MLA Paritala Ravi. A magisterial inquiry is on to find how the prisoner managed to sneak in the dumbbell and why no attempt was made to save Seenu.

The All India Jail Reforms Committee, headed by Justice Anand Narain Mulla, made 658 recommendations relating to legislation, prison buildings, living conditions, medical and psychiatric services, security and separation of prisoners into different categories. But they are yet to be implemented.

Unless prisons become open for scrutiny, some experts say, imprisonment will only escalate the viciousness of crime. “Imprisonment animalises people,” says former inspector general, prisons of Tihar, Kiran Bedi, who was praised for prison reforms during her tenure. “Until respect for human rights is inculcated in the police personnel at induction level, and senior officers don’t disapprove it, this problem will not be solved.”

Criminal justice reforms can be a complex work. But as R.K. Saxena, inspector-general (retd), Rajasthan prisons, says, the best way to stop prison deaths and abuses is to do deal with overcrowding: “The prison population puts great pressure on both prisoners and staff.” Referring to a report by the National Police Commission, he says: “Sixty per cent of arrests in India are unjustified or unnecessary.”

The financial inability to secure bail or hire a lawyer leaves many prisoners in limbo. “The majority of prisoners have little financial power to secure their bail,” says Ambaresh Gaur. Prison rules dictate that undertrials may not be made to work, as they are still innocent in the eyes of the law. This means that they sit idle all day long, confined to their cells, making them more vulnerable to mental illness. “Prisoners are more vulnerable to mental illness in the regime of control, enforced solitude and insecurity about future prospects and inadequate health services,” says Murli Karnam. “Many inmates commit suicide to escape daily suffering.”

Outside the Agra Central Jail, not far from the main gate, a young man is waiting to meet his brother-in-law who is convicted of murder. Sonu Sharma, 28, walks up to talk to us, watched intently by an officer. “He is behind the bars for almost seven years now. Every time I visit the prison I request authorities to keep him here for another five years, until he completes his life sentence, but keep him alive,” Sonu says, his voice cracking. He stops to gather himself. “I fear that he will not survive the prison. He may be killed or he may kill himself out of frustration.” Going by the sordid plight of prisoners, his fears are not unfounDED.———

 Horror chambers

Cases of custodial death are on the rise

By: Syed Nazakat

By looking at Raj Kali’s eyes one can gauge the depth of her pain. It has been 22 long, painful years since she lost her son Mahinder Kumar. The police arrested him without a warrant from Shahdara colony in Delhi after he had an altercation with a couple in the neighbourhood. One day later, he died in custody after being tortured brutally.

“They killed him for nothing,” said Raj Kali. The postmortem report revealed that he had 42 bone injuries. His friend, Ram Kumar, who was arrested along with him, was killed in an ‘encounter’ a few days later in a bid to cover up the murder. “We didn’t know what to do. But then I told my husband that we would fight for justice till we die,” said Raj Kali.

For more than 20 years, Raj Kali struggled with the case. Finally she won in 2006 when a lower court in Delhi convicted the main accused, former assistant commissioner of police R.P. Tyagi, and sentenced him to death. The second accused, K.P. Singh, retired ACP, got one year’s rigorous imprisonment. Sub-inspector Tej Singh, the third accused, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. “There is peace finally. The killer has been punished. But nobody should undergo my fate,” said Raj Kali.

An increasing number of people in India lose loved ones in police custody. The latest victim is a resident of Morta village of Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh. Sitting in a corner of his farm, sub-inspector (retd) Ved Prakash Tyagi of the Delhi Police said he never thought his own son would be a victim of custody death.

On December 12, 2008, his son Yogesh Tyagi, 35, a revenue officer, was arrested by the police from Ghaziabad for questioning in connection with the murder of Congress leader Pradeep Tyagi. In the police station, Yogesh was brutally beaten with iron rods and five hours later he died. Following his death, seven policemen were suspended. But a month later, all except two were back in service.

“It is frustrating that my own people have killed my son,” said Ved Prakash Tyagi, adding that children in the neighbourhood run home scared every time they see a cop. Custodial deaths highlight the frequent use of torture, a practice decried by the Supreme Court. “The ban on torture or any cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is absolute, even in times of war,” said Supreme Court lawyer S. Boloria, who has dealt with cases of custodial deaths and police torture.

But some police officers justify the use of torture to extract information and instill fear. A senior police officer in Ghaziabad, on condition of anonymity, openly discussed torture methods with a reporter. One technique, he said, uses a rubber belt attached to a wooden handle. “When we whip them with it, there are no fractures, no wounds and no blood. It is safe for us, as nothing shows up in the postmortem report. But the pain is such that any person will break down and confess to anything.”

Last year, 1,389 people died in police custody. The numbers could be more, as the relatives of many victims choose to remain silent fearing reprisal.


INTERVIEW of former Chief Justice of India, Justice Rajendra Babu, chairman of National Human Rights Commission

Q. Why are prisoners dying?

A. In our country, we have a serious problem with the jail system and there is little scrutiny. People die due to natural reasons, medical neglect, abuse, torture and violence. It has become chronic in our country. We have to understand that it is the obligation of the authorities to ensure safety of prisoners and that their legal rights are not denied. Liability is absolute. There is no dilution when it comes to responsibility of jail authorities.

Q. What steps are you taking to stop these deaths?

A. We are imparting training to the police force, reviewing various laws and rules from human rights perspective. We have also selected 28 districts in the country, one in each state, for direct interaction with their field-level functionaries to focus primarily on custodial justices and health care of prisoners.

Q. But there are widespread allegations of torture and abuse in prisons.

A. Yes, and we are concerned. The police often try to hide facts. They cook up strange stories to hide their negligence and misuse of power. In a recent case, a prisoner died on way to court. The police said that he escaped by jumping a wall and then strangled himself with a rope. That was ridiculous.

Q. Is there any communal angle to deaths in prison?

A. I don’t think so. We have not come across any report that suggests that prisoners belonging to any particular religion are tortured.

Q. Is it true that many states don’t cooperate with the NHRC?

A .Many states are reluctant to accept that there is something wrong with their prison system. But we are consistently taking up cases with them. Our duty is to make them accountable.

Q. Do jail authorities follow the decisions and recommendations of the commission?

A. They have to. Under the law, we can ask the state and the Central government to investigate any case. We can also direct the police from district A to investigate the incident happened in district B. In cases of compensation, state governments have to send us a proof of payment.

Q. The NHRC often visits prisons. What have you seen there?

A. The condition of jails is a major cause of concern for us. During our visits to various prisons, we have found a depressing pattern of overcrowding, lack of sanitation and mistreatment of prisoners.

(May 31, 2009)



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