On October 25 last year, Dilshada Begum was supposed to pay a visit to the Kupwara district jail.

Her husband, Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, accused in a drug trafficking case, had been at the prison since April 2021.

“He called me from a jail phone and asked me to visit the next day,” said Begum, who lives in Prangroo village of Mawer Handwara in North Kashmir. Bhat asked his wife to bring their children and his mother along. “He also said I should cook some mutton for him.”

Begum could not make it to the prison that day, as her mother-in-law fell ill and had to be taken to the hospital. “I thought I would meet him the next day,” she said.

By evening, Begum got several calls from the local police as well as the village head about an injury her husband had sustained in jail.

“Then our DDC [district level panchayat leader] called me,” said Begum. “He asked me to go to Kupwara hospital and check on my husband.”

When she reached the hospital, she found that her husband was dead.

According to jail authorities, 37-year-old Bhat died after “falling from a sub-jail building” in the prison.

Begum does not buy this version. She alleges her husband was murdered.

“The officials told me he suffered a heart attack while he was climbing the stairs to the top floor. And that he fell down and died,” she said. “Tell me, if a person falls down from such a height, would he not have bruises on the body or face?”

Instead, Begum said, her husband had a deep wound on his head. “It looked as if some iron-like object had been inserted in his head,” Begum said. “It was soaked in blood even after his death.”

Shahbaz Hussain, the superintendent of Kupwara district jail, told Scroll that Bhat died in an accident: “He fell down from the stairs in the jail and suffered an injury when his head hit the marble floor.”

A magisterial enquiry was also carried out, Hussain said. “All the mandatory procedures were followed,” he said. “However, the post-mortem report is still awaited or may have already been submitted. I am not sure.”

An old photograph of Mohammad Yousuf Bhat. Credit: Safwat Zargar.

Four deaths, one jail

Since June 2021, at least four prisoners – all of them undertrials – have died in Kupwara jail.

Two months after Bhat’s death, a 75-year-old prisoner also died after he was taken “seriously ill” in the jail. Mohammad Maqbool Khan had been imprisoned since August 2022 on charges of abetment to suicide. “He was very old and had cardiac problems,” said Hussain, the jail superintendent. “He had also undergone a bypass surgery in 2011.”

The families of at least two of the deceased prisoners have alleged that their relatives did not get proper medical treatment in the jail.

Bhat’s family – the third deceased prisoner – alleges that he was murdered inside the jail.

The deaths have turned a spotlight on the conditions of prisoners in the Union territory’s jails, which are often full because of the political situation and militancy.

The worrying phenomenon of prisoners dying at Kupwara jail began in June 2021, during the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On June 14, 2021, a 37-year-old rape accused Lateef Ahmad Mir of Sopore died in jail. Before his sudden death, Mir had tested positive for Covid-19 and was put in quarantine. While he eventually tested negative, Mir’s condition deteriorated and he passed away in jail.

Six months later, another prisoner from Sopore, Khurshid Ahmad Wani, also died in Kupwara jail after he fell “severely ill”. Wani was facing charges of kidnapping and detaining a married woman and had been in the jail since October 5, 2021.

Jail authorities maintain that all the deaths, barring Bhat’s, were natural. “All of them had underlying health issues when they were imprisoned,” said Hussain, the jail superintendent. “They received treatment in the prison and were also taken to the hospital whenever needed.”

Jabeena Bano holds a photograph of her husband Lateef Mir. Credit: Safwat Zargar.

Overcrowded jails

Prisons in Jammu and Kashmir have been under constant pressure because of a decades-old militancy and an often volatile political situation.

In the run-up to the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood on August 5, 2019, hundreds were detained and lodged in jails across the state.

A significant number was also shifted to prisons across the country.

According to official figures of the Prisons Department, Jammu and Kashmir, there are a total of 14 prisons in the Union territory – two are central jails, 10 are district jails.

All of them are packed beyond capacity. Against a total capacity of 3,629 inmates, the 14 prisons currently house more than 5,300 inmates.

Take the case of Kupwara district jail, which can hold 164 inmates but currently houses over 350 inmates.

Overcrowded jails are not unique to Jammu and Kashmir, nor are deaths of prisoners in jails. According to prison statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau, 5,778 prisoners died in India’s jails between 2019 and 2021. Twelve per cent of these were unnatural deaths.

In the same period, 31 prisoners died in the jails of Jammu and Kashmir. At least two of them died due to unnatural causes.

Data revealed by the National Crime Records Bureau also shows that the number of prisoners in jails in the Union territory has been growing steadily.

From 3,689 at the end of 2019, the number of inmates in the Union territory’s prisons went up to 4,105 by the end of 2020. In 2021, the number of inmates shot up to 4,970. According to information on the website of Jammu and Kashmir’s prisons department, more than 5,300 prisoners are lodged in 14 prisons.

But overcrowding is just one part of the problem.

Madhurima Dhanuka, who leads Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s prison reforms programme, blames the lack of medical infrastructure in jails for the deaths of prisoners across India.

“Medical health infrastructure is nearly nil in a prison setting,” Dhanuka said. “If you look at the statistics, there are high vacancies among medical staff and other support staff. In jail, when you are not getting effective healthcare, where do you go?”

‘He knew he was dying’

Jabeena Bano vividly remembers her last conversation on June 13, 2021 with her husband, Lateef Ahmad Mir. “He called me during the day from jail’s phone,” said Bano, a mother of three children. “He was crying. He said his body was aching. He said, ‘I am going to die.’”

By next morning Mir had passed away. His family was informed about his demise in the middle of the night.

A government employee, Mir had been accused of gangrape by his cousin’s wife and had been in jail since February 2021. “My husband was innocent,” said Bano.

According to her, Mir had underlying health problems and often complained of frequent headaches and vomiting at home.

When his health condition worsened in the jail, Bano said, the jail authorities often accused him of faking his illness. “At home, he would go to a doctor, get tests and scans done for himself,” she said. “He did not take his health lightly.”

But in jail, he did not have access to healthcare, she alleged. Mir had been diagnosed with Covid-19 shortly before his death.

She said her husband repeatedly told her about how jail authorities had ignored his pleas about his ailing health. “Once a team of doctors had come to visit the jail,” Bano said. “They suggested the jail authorities take extra care of my husband. They felt something was wrong. But the authorities ignored his condition.”

While he was facing trial, Mir’s family applied for a bail on medical grounds. “Even though it was during the Covid-19 pandemic, he was not granted bail,” said Hakeem Tanveer, Mir’s legal counsel. “His application was before the court when he passed away.”

Khurshid Ahmad Wani died in Kupwara jail in January 2022. Credit: Safwat Zargar.

Inadequate medical staff

In Jammu and Kashmir’s prisons, the number of medical staff has not kept up with the surge in prisoners.

For example, in 2019, the total strength of medical staff in the Union territory’s jails was 74. While the next two years saw the addition of around 1,300 inmates to the jails, the number of medical staff members increased by only two.

Medical staff refers to doctors, paramedics, pharmacists and other skilled medical professionals.

In 2019, there was one medical staff member for every 49 inmates in Jammu and Kashmir’s prisons. By 2021, that ratio had worsened to 65 inmates for every medical staff member posted in the jail.

“Since the existing staff are already overburdened, they are also under severe stress,” Dhanuka said. “So naturally, there will be neglect.”

Take the case of Kupwara district jail. For 355 inmates, there are only two medical staff members. None of them is a doctor. “We have a pharmacist and nursing orderly in the jail,” explained Hussain, the superintendent. “In case of emergencies, we shift the prisoner to a hospital.”

According to Hussain, they have taken up the matter of lack of medical staff with the authorities. As of now, they have tried to increase the frequency of doctors’ visits to the jail. “A doctor visits the prison 2-3 times a week, as compared to once a week before,” he said.

‘Get me out of here’

The family of another deceased prisoner, Khurshid Ahmad Wani from Sopore, has also complained of a lack of proper medical treatment.

In September 2021, Wani had eloped with a married woman from Kupwara with whom he had fallen in love. Based on the complaint of the woman’s family, Wani was traced by police after a month and booked for kidnapping. His younger brother Mohammad Yousuf was also booked for abetment. Both were imprisoned in Kupwara jail in October, 2021.

A casual labourer, 20-year-old Wani did not have any underlying health issues before he was arrested, his family said.

“He grew very weak inside the jail and lost weight,” said his elder brother Manzoor Ahmad Wani. “All he would say on phone is that he’s not well and that we should get him out of there.”

Wani’s family was compelled to file a bail application on medical grounds after they saw his condition worsening.

“During one hearing, he collapsed in front of the judge,” Manzoor Wani said. “He could not stand up. My mother held his head in her lap.” However, the application was turned down by the court.

Wani’s worsening condition was not lost on the jail staff either. “Lower-level jail staff would call us discreetly, saying he was unwell and that we should come to see him,” said Manzoor Wani.

On the night of January 10, 2022, Wani began to vomit and broke into a cold sweat after having a few morsels of food. “My younger brother who was in jail with him said Khurshid asked for water. After having at least five or six glasses of water, Khurshid went to sleep,” said Manzoor Wani. He never woke up.

Khurshid Wani’s younger brother Mohammad Yousuf was released on bail after his brother’s death. He has been diagnosed with mild depression.

“Doctors have asked us to keep Yousuf happy,” said Manzoor Wani. “But the truth is we are still unable to fathom what befell us.”