Prison life is hard anywhere, but in Indian jails, where conditions span the range from dire to dreadful, it can be ruthlessly harsh. The grimness is unsparing ‒ except when it comes to VIPs and moneybags. If one has cash to offer, even a stint in Tihar Jail can be comfortable.

According to a news report, Sahara India Parivar chief Subrata Roy, currently imprisoned in Tihar Jail, paid Rs 31 lakh for special privileges for 57 days. These included an air-conditioned room, western-style toilet, mobile phone, Wi-Fi and video conferencing facilities. The bill to Roy’s company: Rs 54,400 a day.

“He was entitled to these facilities as a result of a Supreme Court order,” said Rajesh Kumar Chauhan, a senior official at Tihar Jail. "He had requested the court for these because he needs to sell some of his properties to raise Rs 10,000 crore required for his bail."

Roy was imprisoned on March 4 for failing to refund Rs 20,000 crore to depositors and banks, despite Supreme Court orders. He was asked by the court to pay Rs 10,000 crore as bail ‒ Rs 5,000 crore in cash and the rest in bank guarantees.
Chauhan insisted that Roy was offered only the privileges specified by the court. As regards everything else, including jail food, he was not treated specially.

Paying for privileges

Tihar officials maintained that they treat all inmates the same, VIPs no exception, unless directed by the court or on medical grounds. But one official told, on condition of anonymity, that freedoms can be bought in the prison by greasing palms. “Inmates can easily have luxuries like alcohol, cigarettes, home-cooked food, mobile phones, air-conditioning and even television sets as long as they bribe the right people,” the official said.

Often, he said, rich inmates are removed from the barracks to a ward with an attached bathroom.
“They can also hire other inmates to wash their laundry, clean the floor, among other things," the official said. "Several inmates volunteer to work for them for additional money and to build contacts.”

His acknowledgement echoed information revealed by senior journalist Iftikhar Gilani after he was framed and incarcerated in Tihar in 2002. “Bribery is the safest bet inside the jail. Money can help you hire domestic helps, get home-cooked food, and make sure you are treated nicely by the authorities. It is a different world inside,” Gilani had said.

Security threats

Apart from other allowances, Roy was given security personnel, according to the news report. This provision is proffered in jail if  an inmate is under threat from prison mates, said Chauhan. “With high-profile inmates, there is a risk that they may get ransom demands or become the target of a hired gun," he said. "So, extra security is provided for their safety."

Stories of special privileges for powerful inmates of Tihar Jail first appeared when Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi was sentenced to 30 days in jail over the Maruti Udyog controversy in 1978.  In recent years, the Delhi prison has had many famous residents, including former Indian Olympic Association president Suresh Kalmadi, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Kanimozhi and A Raja, former Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh and former Indian cricketer S Sreesanth.

Recurring tales of VIPs obtaining concessions from jail authorities have followed.

Amar Singh, according to a senior Tihar official, cited a chronic kidney problem and urinary tract infection to avoid the usual hardships of jail. Instead of sharing space with regular inmates in the barracks, he got a separate ward. He was allowed home food, mineral water and a western-style toilet. Two cellmates, according to the senior official, cleaned his ward four to five times a day with disinfectant and sprayed insecticide to keep mosquitos at bay.

Kalmadi, Kanimozi and Raja enjoyed various comforts in Tihar’s jails 3, 4 and 6 too . “They were given mineral water," the official said. "The quality of food was better since most of it was delivered from five-star hotels. They were assigned domestic help and had television in their cells with 28 channels.”