Lawyer activist Sudha Bhardwaj on the time spent with women in prison

After spending three years in prison, she was released on bail in December. In an interaction in Mumbai, Sudha Bhardwaj recalls the conditions in the two women's prisons in Mumbai

Flavia Agnes (extreme right), Varsha Bhogle (extreme left) and Santoshee Mishra (second from left) at the panel discussion with Sudha Bharadwaj
Flavia Agnes (extreme right), Varsha Bhogle (extreme left) and Santoshee Mishra (second from left) at the panel discussion with Sudha Bharadwaj

Sudha Bharadwaj

Legal aid is a right guaranteed by the Constitution but it is virtually nonexistent and ineffective, recalls the lawyer-activist, who spent three years in jail as an accused in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case. Many inmates cannot follow the language and are not even aware of the name of their lawyer despite having signed the Vakalatnama. The judiciary needs to take a good, hard look at those who are in ‘judicial custody’.

I have been a lawyer for 16 to 17 years, representing contract workers, farmers or tribals who lost their land or jobs. So, yes, it was a bit strange to suddenly see myself on the other side as a criminal.

The first experience one has in prison is being stripped of your dignity. When I was taken to Yerwada jail, it was evening. I was asked to go to a room and strip. I was no longer a woman, a lawyer or a human being. I was just prisoner number 167. I was handed over a ghongri and chadar, an aluminium plate, mug and a bowl– and sent to the barracks.

In prison they also address you very ‘lovingly’ (laughs). It does come as a shock. You also lose your privacy. In Yerwada jail, where we were in the death row, it was not an issue. But in Byculla, each cell had a capacity to hold 35 inmates but 56 of us were crammed in. Each one was so close to the other that if you so much as turned to one side, you could disturb someone’s sleep. If you snored, you might upset others. We had four bathrooms between all of us. Suddenly there was no concept of any wall, any privacy, as everything is shared.

Because there are no walls, because there is nowhere to hide, you have to look everything in the face. What kept me going was that I was among the more fortunate. I had good lawyers, I had very dear friends, people of my union, my colleagues, all trying very hard to get me out. I had also my daughter outside.

Some of the other prisoners were abandoned by their families. They didn’t know their lawyers’ name even after signing the vakalatnama. I had no time to feel miserable with far more miserable people around me. So, I decided to try and help them. I have provided more legal aid in the three years I spent in prison than I have in the last 16 years. I would constantly be writing applications. I became the arzi wali aunty. Word went around that if you wanted an application written, you go to this person.

I also learnt a lot about the criminal justice system. The biggest take away for me was that though the Constitution mandates legal aid, due to which all these legal service authorities are created, legal aid is barely effective. We are allowing miscarriage of justice to happen. That is why I would really like to do something to help strengthen the Legal Aid system.

Prisons themselves are not medieval. Prisoners clean the prisons themselves, so they keep them fairly clean, cleaner than police lock ups, unless there is a water crisis, which is quite frequent.

The problem is with the attitude of jail authorities. They seem to believe that their job is to open the cells, count the people, give them food and lock them up again. If that is what they think is their basic task, then not surprisingly they treat inmates like animals, herding them, counting them, taking them out and feeding them.

But if prisons are seen as reformative institutions, then they should be more concerned about what these women do during 24 hours in the prison. Are they reading? Are they studying? Are they agonizing over something? Do they need counselling? What will they do when they go out? Are they learning a new skill?

Lawyer activist Sudha Bhardwaj on the time spent with women in prison

Just as you some staff are dedicated to the canteen, others to take care of the mulaqaat (meetings with family members), there must be people dedicated to overseeing the extra-curricular activities of the inmates.

Prison system must ultimately ensure that when inmates are finally released, they do not slip back into their old lives. There are women in prisons held for prostitution. I am sure they go back to it. There are women held for drugs, for theft; there are Bangladeshi women who had been driven by poverty. We are doing nothing to ensure that they will not be in jail again.

During the pandemic physical mulaqaats were stopped. After five or six months of no communication with the outside world, with women not knowing how their children were, the court was petitioned and phone calls were allowed. It was a great relief.

Now, sadly, since the mulaqaats have started again, phone calls, which were actually better, have stopped.

Phone calls were very convenient for inmates, for those who had elderly people at home or family members who were unable to travel.

Yes, there is food, there is water, there is sanitation. What is not there is clarity about what you do with your life and how you spend your time; so, most people spend their time fighting and arguing.

Both at Yerwada and Byculla, the basic medical system was actually fine. There was a daily OPD dispensing medicines. Most of the women got Paracetamol and Cetrazine. Yerwada was far more organised with a dentist, a paediatrician and a skin doctor visiting. But during the pandemic nobody could come and that was a really difficult time. There used to be a psychiatrist, a very good one, who would visit every week. But she was dealing with people who were uncontrollable and aggressive. But there were also inmates who were just depressed, who were not causing problems to anybody. But they too needed psychiatric help.

The other good thing is that they take TB, HIV etc. fairly seriously, even blood pressure and diabetes. Inmates, however, are not often counselled properly. The doctor gives you two tablets of antibiotic to treat an infection but while the doctor expects the inmate to return for more, often people don’t go back, leading to all kinds of drug resistance. Since only very serious cases are referred to the hospital, a lot of ailments are not treated or detected early enough. Sanitary napkins are easily available. They also come to barracks to find out last menstrual dates.

Every woman is also made to take a pregnancy test at Yerwada. Even I had to take one though I told them I had stopped menstruating 15 years ago; but they said you have to take one even if you are 70 years old. Some rules are implemented quite mechanically.

Children are in fact the happiest in prison because they are showered with lots of affection by inmates, who don’t have anything else to do; even the stern matrons enjoy their company and are indulgent. Children get a little better food, milk, etc. Before the pandemic they would be taken to a play school outside the gates, but that stopped during the pandemic.

Lawyer activist Sudha Bhardwaj on the time spent with women in prison

Many of the inmates however don’t have a lawyer arguing for them even as the prosecution on the other side keeps telling the court, “No sir, no sir, the offence is very grievous sir.” So, no interim bails were given except those who were charged with theft. People with illnesses like asthma, HIV and TB were not released during the pandemic; women over the age of 70-75 were not released, people with severe diabetes taking six injections a day were not released.

The judiciary should have appreciated that the virus did not care whether the victim was in for a MCOCA case or an NDPA case or other offences.

Despite the odds, however, the women were creative. They did pay attention to their makeup and would dress up their children nicely with their limited resources.

Food was actually better in Yerwada. There were 350 of us. Food was cooked by the women; there was also an open farm maintained by convicts sentenced for seven years or more. There would thus be good and fresh vegetables. On the other hand, we didn’t have any special items on Sundays like in Byculla. It is an undertrial jail and food is cooked by men over there. The lentils were good, the vegetables were awful and the rotis would depend on whether good cooks were in judicial custody! As a basic meal, it was fine but it was not at all tasty. In the canteen, however, there would be items like chivda, wafers and peanuts; so, the women would crush peanuts to make chutney, mix it with vegetables or mix rice with onion garlic powder or make pulao with chivda.

For my 60th birthday on November 1, just before I came out of jail, I could see hectic activity going on. What my friends did was crush Marie biscuits to make a dough for the base; they then dipped Britannia Rusk into sugar syrup, covered it with chocolate before writing my name with jam. It was the best birthday of my life.

They did try their best to make themselves and other people happy. There is much fighting but there is friendship also. You can’t survive without friendship in the jail.

The experience in both the jails was quite different. We were in the Death row section in Yerawada. There were five cells. Prof Shoma Sen was next to me and then there were two sisters who had been in jail for 25 years. They had naturally become frustrated and very anxious. We were not supposed to communicate with anybody and there will be a constable watching 24x7. That was a very isolating experience. My cell was about 10 steps by three steps. So, we could just pace up and down.

We were let into the corridor for some time and allowed to be in the sun outside for half an hour or so, after others went in. While it was isolating and depressing, I spent a lot of time reading and writing; and I made great friends with professor Sen and became very close; we had only heard of each other before we met.

The good thing about jail friendships is that you don’t waste time in formalities, you come straight to the point. You share everything about your family, about your children, why you are worried about them.

(Edited & condensed text of a discussion in Mumbai with Sujata Anandan, Santoshee Mishra & Gautam Mengle of National Herald and lawyer & activists Flavia Agnes and Varsha Bhogle)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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