Every time a high profile politician or businessman is sent to jail, stories start cascading about the poor conditions in jails, the denial of home cooked food to the alleged offender, and his inability to meet as many visitors as he would like.
The debates centre round whether or not the prisoner should get television sets, newspapers, pedestal fans and even attendants. All of this merits consideration, and indeed the conditions in our jails leave much to be desired.
But within this, women prisoners are an overlooked sub-sect and, by all accounts, the penal system is far less kind to them than it is to men. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative found that when there is overcrowding in smaller jails, women are forced to share space with men. Often, they are made to sleep on floors, without proper bedding even in the winter. The Model Prison Manual provides for women doctors, superintendents, special care for pregnant and post-natal woman, and regular health checks. In most jails, this is not provided. Thanks to the lack of qualified prison personnel, male wardens and superintendents are often posted to the women’s sections of jails, in gross violation of the law. Food rations are poor and in many jails women get much less than men. There seems no consistent policy to deal with women inmates across India.
There is also lack of attention to women’s health in jails. Constant fear and harassment, coupled with appalling sanitation and living conditions, cause mental stress and trauma. A study found that at least 1.2 per cent of women inmates suffered from mental illnesses, which are rarely treated since there are hardly any mental health experts available.
Provisions for privacy, even proper bathing facilities, are not available in many jails.
We hear success stories of how male prisoners are rehabilitated and taught vocational skills, but this is rarely so for women. When there is talk of prison reform, women’s rights should feature prominently, but it hardly ever does.
This is vital given that the female prison population in India has risen by 61 per cent in the last 15 years as opposed to the male rate of 33 per cent. Yet, infrastructure for women is inadequate and poor.
Children can only stay with women prisoners till the age of six. This means that the woman is often traumatised, wondering how her child or children are faring outside after they cross this age. Many women accused of various crimes do not have recourse to legal aid; in fact, they know very little about their legal rights. Unlike in the case of men, who are often breadwinners, the woman prisoner tends to find little familial support. In many instances, the woman is housed in a jail far from home, making it almost impossible for her family to visit her even if they should want to.
Many women in jail are there because they are far more vulnerable to police coercion, which makes them confess to crimes they may not even have committed. The typical profile of the woman inmate is that she is young to middle-aged; often from a lower caste; poor and illiterate or semi-literate; and with no means to fight a legal battle.
In the rare case of women raising the banner of revolt, they are mercilessly dealt with, as in the case of a woman in a Mumbai jail who was brutalised by the guards for demanding better rations. She escaped with her life, thanks to the fact that she got medical attention on time.
There is a definite need to improve conditions in jail all round, and it is good that attention is focused on this subject intensively when there is a VIP prisoner. The idea of open jails and more access to legal aid would go a long way to improving the lot of women in prisons. But for now, it would seem that system believes more in locking women up and throwing away the key.