Veena*, 42, a resident of Delhi’s Mangolpuri, is under trial for allegedly murdering her husband, and is presently out on bail from Tihar jail. A worker at a car spare-parts market, Veena earns Rs 6,000 per month for herself and her daughter, who was nine months old when her mother was jailed in 2018.
Having no one else to fall back on, she kept the baby with her in the jail. “The basic facilities inside Tihar jail are decent, but better food should be provided for children,” Veena told IndiaSpend.
Asha*, a 34-year-old ration shop worker, stays in Rohini, Delhi. In 2018, she completed a nine-year sentence, after being convicted of murdering her step-child, in Gurugram District Jail within the National Capital Region in Haryana.
Asha manages to meet her daughter, residing in a missionary school in Noida, also within the NCR in Uttar Pradesh, only once a month. When her daughter was born in jail, five months into her sentence in 2009, “there were hardly any facilities for pregnant women and children inside Gurugram jail”, said Asha.
Their experiences mirror those of many of India’s 1,543 women inmates – 8% of the 19,913 women prisoners across the country – whose children (1,779 in all) lived with them in jail in 2019, according to National Crime Records Bureau data. Women form only 4% of the prison population in India.
Mothers in jail often struggle to get food appropriate for their children, who can stay with their mothers in jail till they turn six, if a suitable arrangement cannot be made for them outside. While a central jail like Delhi’s Tihar is described as a “model” prison and has a separate jail for women, India’s women inmates are often housed in just a separate enclosure within the same jail as male prisoners. Prisons have been largely designed “from the perspective of managing issues of male prisoners”, experts told IndiaSpend.
As a result, their children seldom have access to learning, and often lack social skills, having lived in a closed jail environment. After turning six, children are separated from their mothers and housed in state-run institutions until their mothers are released, or they are capable of earning a livelihood.
Rules laid down by a Supreme Court of India judgment in 2006, for the welfare of women inmates and their children, prescribe that these children must be allowed to visit their mothers in jail at least once a week, but this is seldom implemented.
The home ministry’s overarching Model Prison Manual for all procedures in prisons, issued in 2016, and the United Nations’ Bangkok Rules protocol issued in 2011 also prescribe procedures for the welfare of women inmates with children. These and the SC judgment have all had a “positive impact” on their welfare, but there remains “a gap between implementation and policy”, say experts.
Children in system designed for men
Across the globe, an estimated 19,000 children are living with their primary caregivers (usually mothers) in prison, according to the Global Prison Trends, 2020 report by the international non-governmental organisation, Penal Reform International.
In India, over a decade to 2019, an average 1,586 – or 9% – of all women inmates had children with them, and three in four of these mothers were undertrials, according to our analysis of NCRB data. In 2019, 1,543 women prisoners had children with them.
There are 31 jails for women in 15 Indian states and Union Territories, while 21 states and UTs have no separate jails for women. Of all women undertrials in 2019, about one in 10 were with children. Seven in 10 of the 478,600 people in prison in Indian jails are under trial, IndiaSpend reported in September.
The challenges faced by women inmates “stem from the fact that prisons have traditionally been designed to suit the needs of men”, Anju Anna John, project officer of the prison reforms programme at the Delhi office of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, told IndiaSpend.
“The implementation of the provisions [for the welfare of women prisoners] is found to be largely lacking and women face a variety of problems while living in prison,” noted the Women in Prisons, India report, 2018 of the Ministry of Women and Child Development. It added that prison administrations should ensure that “facilities are tailored towards children living under their care, and these children should not be made to feel like offenders”.
Women prisoners receive minimal investment usually due to their low numbers, which makes it economically unviable to create separate infrastructure for them, according to Vijay Raghavan, professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and project director of Prayas, a field action project working on criminal justice mostly in Maharashtra. “It is the same with children in jail, because their numbers are typically low,” Raghavan told IndiaSpend.
Life in custody surrounded by women prisoners “can never be normal for any child of six years and below”, Raghavan wrote in Justice Frustrated: The Systemic Impact of Delays in Indian Courts, a collection of essays on the Indian judicial system co-published by Daksh, a civil society organisation based in Bengaluru.
“Many children are born in prison and they do not experience a normal childhood, sometimes till they are six years old,” wrote Raghavan. Often due to their prolonged stay in a “negative and custodial environment, their socialisation gets negatively affected”, the essay added.
Nutritional norms not observed
The SC judgment guidelines for the welfare of women inmates and their children also included pre- and post-natal care, and appropriate diets.
“There is no special diet suited to children given to them for dinner,” Veena told IndiaSpend. “We feed them the same food which is served to us”, even though Model Prison Manual 2016 prescribes a diet for pregnant and lactating mothers, for infants and for children between three and six years, in addition to the regular diet prescribed for all prisoners.
While Veena was engaged with tasks such as jail duties or workshops organised by NGOs, her daughter would be placed in Tihar’s daytime (7.30 am to 4.30 pm) creche for children above the age of six months. Younger infants would stay with their mothers even as they worked.
Tihar inmates would get a fixed amount of food for breakfast. “For lunch and dinner, we could ask for any amount of food we wanted, but only in one serving,” said Veena. Infants were given milk twice a day, but not those who went to the creche.
Extra milk for them was provided only on special request if the mother was not lactating enough, said Veena. “I would sometimes have to request the jail authorities to give me some milk as my daughter used to feel hungry at night since I was not lactating enough,” said Veena. “But I was given just half a glass of milk.”
There are 21 children in Delhi’s jails at present, according to Sandeep Goel, director general of prisons, Delhi, who said children are given an appropriate diet consisting of milk, dalia and khichdi. “Normally, the doctors and mothers understand well the requirements of the individual child and a diet is accordingly provided for the child’s comfort,” he said.
Asha’s experience in Gurugram jail was different. Breakfast was at 7 am, and lunch between 8 am and 9 am, so inmates had to preserve the food to eat when they were hungry. “During pregnancy, I was given just an extra banana in addition to the regular diet,” she told IndiaSpend. After delivery, mothers were given an extra 1.25 litres of milk daily for the mother and child, said Asha. “But the milk was not even boiled and often, it would split by evening.”
IndiaSpend has reached out to DG, Prisons, Haryana for comment, but did not get a response.
“The prison manual has set procedures but there is a gap between policy and implementation,” Monica Dhawan, director, India Vision Foundation, an NGO that works with inmates’ children in prisons mainly in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana, and runs creches in seven jails, told IndiaSpend.
Special dietary needs of children in Haryana jails were generally observed, said Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s John. “However, in one of our visits in Haryana, while the prison staff said that the special diet including the provision of eggs was available if the prisoners requested it, the women prisoners were not aware of this facility,” she said.
It was only in 2012 after India Vision Foundation began working in the Gurugram jail that conditions improved for inmates, Asha told IndiaSpend. “After that, we were allowed to cook nourishing meals for our children,” Asha said. “They organised workshops for us, which helped me earn some money too.” Asha’s daughter lived with her in jail until she was five and was then admitted to a residential school.
Learning norms not followed
The Model Prison Manual 2016 stipulates that a creche facility be provided to women prisoners with children so that they could receive education and vocational training, and mandates education as a compulsory activity for at least one hour every day for women inmates, plus recreational facilities and cultural programmes, said Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s John. “However, these are few and far between,” she added. Most jails do not even have a functioning creche.
Children who are born and raised in jail are not exposed to the world outside, said India Vision Foundation’s Dhawan. They develop poor social skills as their socialisation was mostly limited to women prisoners. “Often they have not interacted with men if they are born in jail,” Dhawan explained.
In Maharashtra, balwadis (anganwadis, or creches) have been set up in eight prisons, through the efforts of Prayas. “It took four or five years to overcome the rule of the prescribed minimum number of children that can be serviced by a balwadi,” said Raghavan.
India Vision Foundation also imparts learning to children of jail inmates and, along with Delhi-based NGO Mobile Creches, has developed learning curricula for children aged 0-3 years and 3-6 years, as “the regular ones do not work for children who are raised in jail”, said Dhawan. India Vision Foundation also trains inmates to become creche workers and learn the curricula.
Children outside rarely visit
In the absence of caretakers, older children are placed in state-run childcare institutions until they turn 18. Siblings may get separated in the process, according to the Children of Women Prisoners: The Invisible Trial report, 2018, by Prayas. Some children deal with financial troubles facing the family, or look after younger siblings. They may also lose touch with their mothers.
State childcare institutions are short of staff, due to which children are unable to visit their mothers regularly, despite rules prescribing this, Raghavan told us. “The problem is there is no dedicated agency to look into the needs of the children of prisoners,” said Raghavan. “It is usually the duty of the probation officer to arrange visits. We got the Women and Child Development department in Maharashtra to issue a circular to ensure that such children are able to meet their mothers in prison at least twice a month, but it does not happen.”
Asha met her daughter every three months while she was in jail, through India Vision Foundation-arranged visits.
Typically, it is only when women complain to the jail superintendent about not having met their children for a long time that the meetings are arranged, according to Raghavan.
If a father is in jail, the mother generally takes care of the children outside, but this may not be the case if the mother is in jail, said Dhawan. “If such mothers make an application, we visit the child where they are staying.”
Stigma, lack of family support
Often, women inmates are undertrials, or spousal murder convicts like Veena, or dowry-related case convicts. Undertrial prisoners undergo “mental stress and agony” because they do not know the situation of their close family members for a number of reasons, such as families not wanting to visit them in jail, or the jail administration not facilitating interaction.
“My maternal side was also not supportive as it is a huge stigma for women to go to jail,” said Asha. “My family members visited me only once and gave me a few things for my daughter. When a man comes out after serving his sentence, he is accepted by the family and society, but it is not the same for women.”
In Veena’s case, who besides her infant daughter also has two teenage boys from her marriage, her husband’s family has looked after the boys. She, however, doesn’t get to meet them due to problems with her in-laws.
In cases where a woman is incarcerated and children are brought up by the paternal family, according to Raghavan, “they tend to poison the minds of the children. Many children end up hating their mothers.”
This also impacts womens’ mental health. Although India Vision Foundation offers basic counselling support, according to Dhawan, Veena had not received such support in Tihar. “I did not see any other woman receiving any counselling, either,” said Veena.
The experts IndiaSpend spoke to said the implementation of guidelines depends a lot on the prison administration. Also, the needs of women and children in jail must be contextualised in different states, as prison is a state subject and policies should differ accordingly.
The government needs to create a separate structure for women in prisons and one way of achieving this is to have combined facilities for women housed in Nari Niketans [women help centres], rescue homes and women prisoners in a single complex in each district, said Raghavan. “They can have common facilities for vocational training and counselling,” adds Raghavan, to address economic viability.
“The prison administration must be the sole authority responsible for all related work and must be provided adequate staff and funds,” said Dhawan, instead of the multiple departments covering different aspects of women and children’s welfare at present. Staff vacancies in prisons ranged from 33% to 38.5% on average, IndiaSpend reported in November 2019 based on the “India Justice Report”, Tata Trusts, 2019. Nineteen states and UTs spent between Rs 20,000 and Rs 35,000 per inmate annually – not even Rs 100 per day per prisoner, the report said.
Veena, who is now out on bail, suggested that there should be a facility to buy edible items for children inside the premises. “Women now earn inside the jail premises and they can afford to buy food for their children.”
*Names of individuals have been changed to protect their identity.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.