Mumbai’s Byculla women’s jail where a riot broke out on Saturday has been under judicial scrutiny for at least three years, as part of a public interest litigation filed by a non-governmental organisation. Conditions at this prison and two others – Arthur Road in South Mumbai and Yerwada in Pune – had prompted a Bombay High Court division bench to call for routine inspections as well as sweeping changes in how these jails are being managed.

On March 1, the court directed the Maharashtra government to set up an expert committee within a month to suggest measures to improve and modernise prisons in the state.

After getting a deadline extension, the state government finally constituted the committee in early June, but that committee is yet to have its first meeting. “The committee has not yet met and needs to meet,” said Vijay Raghavan, one of its members, and a professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. The committee has four other members and will be headed by a retired high court judge. Additional director general (prisons) BK Upadhyay said no date had been fixed for the committee to meet yet.

It is unclear if the Byculla riot will hasten the process of getting the state government to seriously consider the need for prison reforms, but J Pawra, a joint secretary in the Maharashtra Home Department, said the committee’s first meeting is likely to be confirmed soon. He also claimed that the government was in the process of complying with the various directions of the high court.

The Byculla riot

On Saturday, inmates of the Byculla jail staged a protest following the death of Manjula Shetye, a convict, allegedly at the hands of jail officials in an altercation over food items. The inmates banged on the walls, demonstrated on the terrace and shouted against officials even as the local police had to be called in to control the situation, said a senior police official. Since then, 291 inmates have been booked for rioting and unlawful assembly, and six prison guards suspended.

On Wednesday, former media tycoon Indrani Mukerjea, who is awaiting trial in the same prison for her daughter’s murder, and is alleged to have led the protests, told a court that she had been beaten and threatened by jail officials for protesting against Shetye’s alleged murder. On Thursday, the news agency PTI reported that Mukerjea had filed a complaint with the police in connection with this alleged assault. It said that her medical examination had found that she had “received some injuries”.

The involvement of a high-profile figure like Mukerjea has possibly brought the riot greater attention than it would have garnered otherwise. It has also put more pressure on state authorities.

(Photo credit: HT).

Byculla women’s prison has the capacity to house 262 people, yet official statistics from April show that it housed 318 women. A 2015 report that was submitted to the High Court found its hospital facilities inadequate, the cereal served foul-smelling and at least 30 staff positions vacant. Further, it noted that bathing areas were open, affording no privacy for women, and toilets were being cleaned with washing powder provided by the women and not by the jail authorities.

However, sessions court judge AS Shende, who wrote the report, said that in follow-up visits that she made until September 2016, before her transfer to another district, conditions in the jail had improved. “The situation was quite good, it was among the better prisons I had seen,” she said. She added that she had not noted any conditions that might explain the riot incident.

However, real changes in the state’s jails will only be felt if Maharashtra decides to seriously follow the high court directions on prison reforms.

In its detailed order from March, the court said that it found the condition of the three jails it had sought reports on previously were “far from satisfactory”. It directed the government to “take immediate steps” to construct new prisons, make separate bathrooms for women prisoners to ensure their privacy, and undertake repairs where necessary.

From July, the court said that the principal district judge would also have to appoint judicial officers to make visits to the three jails to see if its orders were being followed. The state has time until July 31 to show the court to what extent it has complied with these orders.

Unprecedented incident

“To my knowledge there has been no improvement,” said Uday Warunjikar, the lawyer arguing the case for Jan Adalat, Centre of Para Legal Services and Legal Aid, a non-governmental organisation whose petition prompted the court order. “Realistically speaking it will take two years to implement all these changes. But even if half the [court’s] directions are complied with, that would be substantial.” The government has so far not brought on record what it has done since the final order.

A prison riot is in itself not unheard of, but the incident at Byculla has been deemed unprecedented because it took place in a women’s prison – in the past, riots have usually taken place in men’s prisons. “It is a very shocking incident and the first such large-scale incident in India in a women’s prison,” said Upneet Lalli, deputy director of the Institute of Correctional Administration in Chandigarh, which trains prison personnel. “This should be a wake-up call. The number of women prisoners across the country might be few but their concerns are significant. It needs to be tackled properly.”

According to the latest crime records, jails across India saw 187 clashes in 2015, less than the 255 recorded in 2014, but still higher than in 2010 when 67 such incidents were recorded. These figures include clashes between inmates as also between staff and inmates.

Experts and activists say that conditions in jails are such that when there is overcrowding in small spaces, it naturally leads to frustration and the possibility of small arguments escalating to larger-scale incidents. “The staff is under pressure and gets affected and the negativity percolates to the inmates,” said one officer. It might then take just a single incident to spark off the pressure-cooker like build up. And a perceived injustice might become a rallying point for the incarcerated.

“Often the pattern is, if there is a death in custody, it leads to apprehension and a sense of injustice and insecurity among the other inmates,” said Lalli. “There is a feeling that their grievances are not being redressed properly. The prison administration needs to respond effectively.” She added that prison staff needed proper training and sensitisation to handle women inmates. “Poor prison management results in dysfunctional forms of control and that emerges as a major cause of interpersonal violence,” she said.

In a press release issued on Wednesday, the non-profit Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative claimed that in Maharashtra, a prisoner dies every three days. Further, that suicide rates within prisons are 40% higher than in the general population. “If serious steps are not taken to reverse the corrosion in the prison there is every possibility more lives will be lost and destroyed,” said Mrinal Sharma, programme officer handling prison reform issues at the non-profit, in the release. “Independent visitors must be immediately appointed and their reports must be submitted to prison heads and the government every month.”