Prison barracks in Rajasthan are sometimes so overcrowded, prisoners do not have space to sit for 15 hours at a stretch.
Rodents infest many jails and eat prisoners’ food and bedding.
Undertrials on roti-making duty are expected to make 1,200-1,600 rotis a day: physically exhausting work that is seen as rigorous punishment. By contrast, a line cook in most dhabas makes no more than 300 rotis a day.
Yet, in the very same state, there also exists a model for prisons that’s so appealing, convicts don’t want to leave.
These are some of the findings of a new report on the state of the jails of Rajasthan. It examines prison conditions by studying not just prisoners, but also the working and living conditions of prison guards. The report is authored by Smita Chakraburtty, an independent researcher working on prison reform.
Beginning in late 2017 and concluding in November 2018, Chakraburtty studied 30 prisons across the state, from central and district prisons to lock up jails and open prisons. These open prisons allow prisoners to live with their families on the prison campus and to seek employment outside, so long as they abide by the prison rules and return before roll call.
For her study, Chakraburtty she also collected the perspectives of prisoners and prison guards in the form of group letters. She was allowed to take photographs in order to document the conditions within the closed prisons and they highlight the often inhuman conditions prevalent there. Although the study is confined to Rajasthan, she notes that “...the condition of prisons holds true for all the states in the country.”
No space to sit
Phalaudi sub-jail has the capacity to hold 17 inmates. On the day Chakraburtty visited, there were 74.
In the months that Chakraburtty conducted her study, the government of Rajasthan jail department statistics put prison population at between 88%-96%. But these numbers, she said, don’t convey an accurate picture, pointing out that “the capacity is not calculated barrack-wise, at a micro level”.
There is barrack-level overcrowding. “VIP prisoners are kept alone, so the other prisoners are shifted to another barrack which is already at capacity,” she said.
‘Jail ki roti’
Twenty thousand rotis are made in Rajasthan’s central jails each day in order to feed the 1,400-1,800 prisoners lodged there. Some prisoners are assigned to make the rotis, and it is seen as a rigorous form of punishment. This is because a prisoner on roti-making duty makes somewhere between 1,200-1,600 rotis a day.
It is exhausting work. It involves kneading the dough, rolling it out and cooking the rotis. All this is done in Rajasthan’s extreme weather, in poorly-ventilated jail kitchens.
There is also no distinction made between convicted prisoners and undertrials who ought to be deemed innocent until proven guilty. Indeed, Chakraburtty found that the task of roti making was done mostly by undertrial prisoners, and those too poor to bribe their way out of it.
“There is a certain level of normalisation,” she noted. “Jail ki roti is a matter of mirth. But this is a very problematic practice and it needs to stop.”
Barmer district jail was infested with rodents at the time of Chakraburtty’s visit. The rats climbed into prisoners’ bedding and food. Chakraburtty notes that such rodent infestations are a common problem in prisons across the country. Cockroach and bedbug infestations are also routine, as is the presence of mosquitoes.
Water is very scarce in Rajasthan. Many prison toilets do not have running water, which makes them difficult to maintain and foul-smelling. The state High Court had ordered the construction of outdoor toilets since toilets inside the barracks were becoming health hazards.
However, these new toilets are often not connected to a sewage system and quickly clog up.
Habib Ahmad has been in prison for 21 years. He was 91 at the time Chakraburtty interviewed him and had spent the past two decades living in a tiny 10x12 ft cell in Jaipur Central jail, which he shares with one other inmate. He is physically infirm and the other prisoners take care of him. He prays for permanent parole and to be sent to an open prison.
“There is a group which talks anti-death penalty but which endorses life sentence,” said Chakraburtty, “but if you enter prison you see the implication of a life sentence. This man who is in prison is 90 years old, he is not even the reflection of the man who perpetrated a crime. It’s actually inhuman. This kind of a sentence doesn’t make sense. He is physically infirm, an old man, staying inside prison, his family has abandoned him.”
Some prisoners have gone blind because they don’t have access cataract treatment. The prison cannot release them because their families have long-since abandoned them.
The report contains details of nearly 90 group letters written by prison staff. Each was signed by prison officials, jailors, warders, guards and technicians. Most of them spoke of the low salaries of prison officials. Their salaries range from Rs 1,900 to Rs 7,600 a month. There is also a serious staff deficit. The jail department has 2,129 vacancies in a sanctioned strength of 4,426, which means that 48% of posts are empty.
Prison guard barracks are frequently old and dilapidated. They are also small and insufficient in number, leading to overcrowding.
The Rajasthan open prison system , which allows convicts to live with their families on the campus, is viewed as a reformative system of justice, as opposed to a retributive one. The system was begun in 1955. As Chakraburtty found in her 2017 report on open prisons, it has stood the test of time. They are jails that some prisoners don’t want to leave.
Open prisons were also found to be up to 78 times cheaper than closed prisons and require fewer staff.
Chakraburtty advocates for a scaling up of the open prison model, both on humanitarian and economic grounds, and for a gradual shift from closed to open prisons.
“Such a humane system [of open prisons] of incarceration can be revolutionary, and can be instrumental in laying the foundation for a more just, egalitarian society,” writes Justice Ravindra Bhat, judge in the Supreme Court and former chief justice of the Rajasthan High Court, in the foreword to the closed prisons report.