As the lone tap fills the cracked cement tank, green algae float to the surface of the water. Munna (name changed to protect identity) splashes around in the tank, while women gather to fill small jugs with water that will later be used for both washing and drinking. Munna is three years old, and his life revolves around the sludgy water games and women in the enclosure of the Belgaum Central Prison in Karnataka.

Munna was born in this prison, and has lived here all his life. His mother is facing trial for alleged murder. Media debates have raged around harsher punishments for teenagers who commit serious crimes, but little attention is paid to this other category of children in prisons.

The three-year-old barely speaks. He recognises his mother as ammi and other women inmates as khala. The only men in his life are the police constables who occasionally visit the female barracks. He is a stranger to almost everything about the world outside. “It was only recently that he saw a dog for the first time during my court visit,” his mother recalled. "He was startled."

Who's following the guidelines?

As many as 1,817 children live with their undertrial or convicted mothers in prisons across India, state National Crime Records Bureau's 2014 Prison Statistics.

In 2006, the Supreme Court issued guidelines in the RD Upadhyay vs State of AP case to ensure that certain basic standards are observed with regard to children of women prisoners. These guidelines are aligned with international standards such as the United Nation's Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners (UN Bangkok Rules) and the UN Minimum Standards for Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules). But the implementation of this ruling leaves much to be desired.

During the 2006 hearing, the Supreme Court, even as it is observed that a prison is no place to raise a child, recognised that children may have to stay in jail for no fault of their own. Given their reasoning that children should not be separated from their mothers in their formative years, especially when there are no close family members willing or available to take care of them, the court said that children should be allowed to stay with women prisoners till the age of six, but not after that.

The court directed state governments to protect the fundamental rights of children in prison, work towards their welfare and provide for their social, educational and cultural development. Children are entitled to food, shelter, medical care, clothing, education and recreational facilities as a matter of right, it said.

Confined spaces, confined childhoods

On the ground, however, these guidelines seem to mean little. As part of its ongoing research on undertrial prisoners, researchers from Amnesty International India, including this writer, visited a number of jails in Karnataka. Across the board, it found that prison systems are structured and run with male inmates at the centre and most arrangements, however deficient, are made to suit them, while women inmates’ needs are overlooked.

In Karnataka prisons, women are frequently confined to small enclosures inside the main prison and access to other facilities is restricted. Libraries, open spaces and even the prison’s administrative buildings are beyond their access.

In Bidar, we saw two children confined in a damp dirty enclosure inside the district prison with 11 women. Leave aside recreational facilities, the enclosure was built in such a way that it received almost no sunlight.

Additionally, though the SC guidelines state that as far as possible, pregnant women prisoners should be temporary released, or given parole or a suspended sentence so that they can avoid delivering a child in jail, Amnesty came across examples where this was not done.

Last year, Shailaja (name changed) delivered her son in Belgaum Central Jail. She told the researchers that she did not know she was entitled to temporary release, and jail authorities had not taken any steps to allow her to give birth outside prison. She and her child have been in prison since and no action has been taken against any jail official.

Small steps in a lengthy struggle

Karnataka’s Director General of Police (Prisons), Satyanarayana Rao, admitted that little had been done to provide a clean and healthy environment for women prisoners with children. "There has been no change in the prison manual since 1978,” he said. “But now, we are in the process of re-examining the manual and hopefully, by end of this month, a revised one will be ready and sent to the state government for approval.”

As per the Supreme Court guidelines, once a child turns six, he or she is supposed to be handed over to a suitable surrogate, or transferred into protective custody in a home and brought to prison to meet the mother at least once a week. But the lack of co-ordination between protective homes and the chronically understaffed prisons department makes this difficult. Officials in six prisons that Amnesty visited over the past few months admitted that children are seldom brought to meet their mothers in prison.

Rao, who has been conducting surprise visits to prisons across the state, recently ordered an overhaul of the visitor’s rooms, including the doing away of the wired mesh separating prisoners from visitors. “It is practically impossible for prisoners to talk through the mesh,” he said. “The set-up is so chaotic that mothers never get to speak to their children. So, an arrangement is being made to enable direct contact. We are modifying the present system into a more human-friendly one.”

Amnesty also came across instances where the education and recreational arrangements prescribed in the guidelines were not met. Often, literate prisoners double up as teachers for children and women inmates.

In Gulbarga prison, a convict is in charge of conducting classes for children. Jail officials said she is also responsible, however, for maintaining “peace and harmony” in the barrack, documenting prisoners’ cases, and drafting court applications. With all these duties, she said, teaching takes a back seat. “It is only that much can I do with my time,” said the 42-year-old, who is scheduled to be released in a few months. “Once I am gone, there is no one who can fill my space.”

The Supreme Court guidelines had also said that courts should prioritise cases of women prisoners with children. But as happens with other undertrials, the lack of police escorts, poverty and inadequate legal representation means that these cases drag on.

Women prisoners with children have very little say in how they are treated. And growing up in sub-standard prison conditions has is far from conducive to a healthy childhood. Clearly, there’s a pressing need for the state government and the judiciary – and even civil society – to do much more.

The writer is a researcher with Amnesty International India.