We need to pay more attention to condition of our jails and prisoners

Amid communal madness, Hindus and Muslims together observe rozas and Navratri fasts in jails. The imprisoned are also a part of our society. It’s high time we paid attention to condition of our jails

Representative Image (social media)
Representative Image (social media)

Humra Quraishi

In the midst of all the communal madness spreading out in the country, one news report held out some hope, as it relayed our age old traditions of solidarity and togetherness. To quote from this news report published earlier this week in The Hindustan Times-“At least 150 Hindu prisoners are observing Roza (fasting) inside Tihar jail, a senior prison officer said. Jail officers said the number of Hindu prisoners who are fasting has increased this year. Last year, 59 Hindu prisoners kept the month-long fast…This year, the number of Hindu inmates fasting has increased to thrice the number compared to last year…In the first week of May, most Hindu prisoners lodged in different jails met their respective jail superintendents and informed them that they, too, would fast during Ramzan.

The jail superintendents were, at the time, taking a headcount of the prisoners observing Roza to make the arrangements. They realised that of the total 16,665 prisoners spread across different jails of Tihar, approximately 2,658 prisoners, both Hindus and Muslims were observing Roza. The jail officers said the Hindu prisoners gave different reasons about why they were observing the fast. “Most of them said they were doing it in solidarity with their Muslim friends. May be, they did not want to admit that they are turning to religion after coming to prison. We have observed that 80%-90% of inmates become religious inside prison. Religion is a way of finding peace. A few said they believe they could be released early if they pray to God.”

In fact, this news report also stated that Jails see a similar trend during Navratri — the nine-day Hindu festival. Quoting a Jail officer, “During Navratri, a large number of Muslim prisoners fast with the Hindu inmates… This is common not only in Tihar but across other prisons as well.”

And tucked in this very report was another positive input that during this month of Ramzan, Jail officials have made special arrangements for those who are fasting - allowing the religious heads to come to the prison and pray with the inmates. Also Roohafza and dates are well stocked in various jail canteens.

How I wish we get to know many more such things taking place in the interiors of our jails and prisons! If only publications could give as much focus to the jailed lot as they are giving to the not-so-jailed amongst us!

Yes, as citizens of this country, we ought to know what is happening inside those high walls, to those who sit languishing and cut-off. And this very vital fact can not be overlooked that almost seventy-five per cent of the imprisoned in our jails are under-trials and so, technically innocent.

Yet, they sit imprisoned for years. Frustrated and disgusted with the system, many fade away or even try to break free, only to be captured once again! We haven’t even bothered to study the crucial ‘why’ inmates try to break free. Perhaps, they are unable to cope with the overdose of jailed life and cannot pick up the courage to talk about the trauma and stress they are undergoing. Talk to whom! To the Jailors, who are perhaps themselves bound by the ruthlessness of the very system!

Today, amidst the bogus developmental cries, where’s that required focus on the jails and on those languishing in jails? If the political rulers carried even the faint traces of a genuine connect with the disadvantaged, the first thing they would have done was to reach out to the jailed inmates, at least in terms of reforms. To begin with, they ought to have expanded the very concept and idea of open jails. Let the jailed men and women breathe fresh air. Even if they have committed crimes it does not give the State the sanction to throttle them, slowly and steadily.

In fact, way back in 2003, the then chairman of National Human Rights Commission, Justice A S Anand had focused on the dismal conditions that the jailed face. During my interviews with him, he had given the details of the overcrowded prisons, also the trauma faced by the under-trials because of the delay and hurdles in getting bail.

To quote Justice A S Anand from an interview given to me in 2003, “Yes, nearly 75% of our jail population consists of under-trials, many of whom are innocent… A large number of under-trials languish in jails even after they are granted bail because they are unable to raise the surety amount. In this context, we should consider the release of under-trials on personal bonds.”

Justice Anand had also focused on the plight of the women prisoners. He had mentioned about two specific jails where women prisoners complained of the unavailability of sanitary napkins and of poor menstrual hygiene.

Shouldn’t we question: Why are our jails not getting upgraded and refurbished along the developmental cries? Where is the transparency in the treatment meted out to the jailed? Why shouldn’t a non-governmental agency be allowed to carry out investigative probes? Why are details of the jailed under trials not probed by an independent agency or a watchdog group?

Can there be some degree of transparency to what’s taking place inside those high walls? Also, how I wish that several of the jailed political prisoners of the day could write details of what’s taking place inside their jails. We can’t overlook the fact that some of the best works on Indian society, history and philosophy were authored by many of our revered political leaders during the time they were jailed by the Britishers.

We should not forget that the imprisoned people are a part and parcel of our society and system which is only furthering the crime graph and not lessening it. Aren’t we, as a collective lot, to be blamed for this!

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