Three square meals for Rs 34: Here is why prisoners risk assault to seek better food

In less than a month, two incidents of violence in Maharashtra’s prisons have left two dead, including one convict who had been allegedly assaulted by jail staff. A three-part series looks at the faultlines in the state’s prisons and the denial of human rights behind bars.

Written by ZEESHAN SHAIKH , ​TABASSUM BARNAGARWALA | Mumbai | Updated: July 12, 2017 5:21 pm
Manjula Shetye custodial death case, Maharashtra Prisons, Prison inmate death, Byculla Women’s Prison, Mumbai News, Indian Express News Over the last 15 years while the average spending on prison food has increased by 290 per cent from Rs 13.43 per prisoner per day to Rs 52.42 in 2015, the rise in Maharashtra has been only 195 per cent — from Rs 10.33 to Rs 34.22.

ACCORDING to many of her former cellmates, it was Manjula Shetye’s complaint about a shortage of eggs and paav that cost the 35-year-old inmate her life inside the Byculla Women’s Prison. On June 23, the 45-year-old convict serving the final few months of her sentence died after an assault allegedly by jail staff following a scuffle over food rations.

For most, it’s hard to imagine staking life and personal safety for two eggs, but former prison inmates do not find it surprising at all that Shetye picked a grave fight over food. In a place where dal is referred to as “pathar ke sanam” for the substantial number of stones found wading in it, and “rock hard” rotis are surreptitiously used by prisoners as fuel to light up small kitchen fires called “hundis” to spice up their notoriously low quality and bland diet, the longing for decent food afflicts almost every prisoner.

“Every day you should stand outside the prison gates and monitor the garbage that is strewn out. Almost 75 per cent of the garbage would comprise of rotis and rice that get thrown away because they are unpalatable,” says Wahid Shaikh, a former undertrial who spent over eight years inside various jails in the city. Clearly, access to good food is a distant dream for the 29,567 prisoners lodged in Maharashtra’s jails. Data shows the Indian state spends as little as Rs 52.42 on every prisoner per day to arrange the three square meals prescribed in the diet charts of prison manuals. In 2015, Maharashtra spent Rs 34.22 per prisoner per day, the third lowest in the country. Only Goa (Rs 32.83) and Delhi (Rs 31.31) fared worse.

Maharashtra jails

In fact, Maharashtra has historically spent smaller sums on prisoners’ food than the national average. In 2000, the Indian average was around Rs 13.43 compared to Maharashtra’s spending of Rs 10.33 per day. Prisoners are served three times a day. They get breakfast at 7 am, lunch at 9 am and dinner by 3 pm. The food is prepared by a revolving team of 25 prisoners who work in two shifts rolling out nearly 18,000 chappatis in one day.

As per the law, the food is supposed to be prepared under hygienic conditions under strict supervision of a committee headed by the jail superintendent, but the conditions do not meet even basic hygienic requirements in reality. “If you see the place where food is cooked, I promise you will not touch that food again. From rats to insects, almost everything can be found in the kitchen as well as the food. The workers who cook have been allotted a small room in the kitchen where they relieve themselves. Imagine your food being prepared where people piss and defecate,” says Shaikh.

Over the last 15 years while the average spending on prison food has increased by 290 per cent from Rs 13.43 per prisoner per day to Rs 52.42 in 2015, the rise in Maharashtra has been only 195 per cent — from Rs 10.33 to Rs 34.22. This mismatch led the Bombay High Court to take the Maharashtra government to task in 2017, directing it to appoint a three-member committee in each district to monitor prison food.

Not much has changed since the HC’s observations. Irfan Shaikh, a former convict who completed his sentence in 2017, says food inside a prison is a powerful reminder of a prisoner’s humanity and the person he used to be when outside. “The retributive system of our prisons ensures that a prisoner does not have access to any worldly pleasures. Even food is cooked in such a way that it does not taste like food, it merely serves the nutritional purpose,” he says. Only, the nutrition levels in Maharashtra’s jail are shocking too.

“In prison, a prisoner’s diet crashes significantly, lowering their immunity and intake of micronutrients. Stress levels are high. The latent TB bacteria in the body gets active. In a day, an infected prisoner may cough 50 to 100 times. The bacteria in droplets remains suspended in air in an enclosed area infecting other prisoners if the cell is poorly ventilated,” says Dr Lalitkumar Anande, senior medical officer at Sewri TB hospital. According to him, even jail staff is at the risk of developing TB infection due to the poor living conditions.

Data analysed by The Indian Express showed that prevalence of tuberculosis (TB) in Mumbai prisons is eight times higher, at an average 14 per 1,000 population, than in general population, which stands at 1.67 per 1,000 people. The Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme (RNTCP), which provides free TB treatment to patients, provided DOTS (Directly Observed Treatment, Short-Course) treatment to 24 TB prisoners in 2013, which increased to 26 in 2014 and 35 in 2015 at the Arthur Road prison. Apart from living conditions, nutrition levels are directly to blame for the high TB incidence in Mumbai’s prisons.

The Model Prison Manual drafted by the Union Ministry for Home Affairs prescribes that a male prisoner should have an intake of 2,320 to 2,730 kilo calorie (kcal) per day. For female prisoners, it is stipulated to be between 1,900 and 2,830 kcal/day. Prison administration being a federal subject, every state has the right to decide on its food menu, provided it adheres to the nutritional requirements laid down by the prison manual. While prison manuals specify the exact weightage of pulses and vegetables that a prisoner should get, the quality of food served leaves a lot to be desired.

“The food in prison parlance is called bhatta. It is watery and tasteless. There have been times where I have seen prisoners break down in frustration after having to eat those meals day after day,” says a former convicted prisoner who spent time in various jails in Maharashtra. Food accounts for nearly 60 per cent of the total money spent on prisoners in India. This also makes it one of the major expense heads, which is susceptible when officials decide to cut corners.

The only way that prisoners could have access to better food was through jail canteens. Every prisoner is allowed to receive a sum of Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,200 per month from family, which he or she could spend in the jail canteen. But this facility was shut down in Maharashtra around 2008. Prisoners can’t buy food from the canteen any longer. The only time prisoners have access to outside food is during festival days where there is a provision of canteens selling food.

Prisoners also access food through the home cooked meal that certain prisoners are allowed to have on the directions of a court. Earlier, under the provisions of home cooked food, huge food containers would be slipped in by rich inmates to feed dozens of fellow inmates. Certain jails have now laid down rules that say an individual can’t get more than 850 grams of home cooked food per day inside the prison.

Incidentally, barring Northeast and Southern states, besides West Bengal and Jammu & Kashmir, non-vegetarian food is not given free to prisoners in any other state. Certain states have a provision of allowing certain prisoners to access non-vegetarian food from jail canteens on limited days in a year. “The administration believes prisoners are sub human and do not have right to enjoy even basic facilities. My experience in prison was that whenever prisoners got access to decent food on certain special days, the entire day passed peacefully without any incident. It does not take much for a caged prisoner to go crazy. However, the days people had access to decent food even the looniest among us would be normal,” recalls Shaikh.

As a direct consequence of poor nutrition, health problems are routine occurrences for prisoners. A recent survey of 24 sub-jails in Maharashtra by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) observed that “prisoners are not medically examined at the time of admission and there are no regular medical check-ups”.

In Byculla jail, where the women inmates rioted to demand better food and living conditions following Shetye’s death last month, almost all inmates suffer from skin infections. The two other most common ailments among the women inmates are TB and HIV. “Skin diseases are contagious in nature. In jail, as hygiene conditions are poor, this spreads rapidly as they use the common toilets and in some cases even share their soap and towels. Almost all the inmates complain of this,” says a senior official.

A former medical officer who was attached with the Arthur Road prison in 2016 says 300 prisoners visit the prison out-patient department on an average every day. “Of these, one-third would have skin infections. Most prisoners have rashes on their body for a range of reasons. Prisoners share the same bedsheets, do not wash their clothes often and share soap bars,” he says.

According to him, fungal infection, measles and herpes were most common. “There was usually a shortage of anti-fungal cream and tablets for skin infections. Since treatment usually got delayed, the infection would spread to other body parts,” says the former medical officer. With overcrowding and skin infections common, the medical officer says, prisoners need a skin specialist for regular consultation in jails. “This is not a life threatening disease. So, jail authority would not send prisoners to hospital for merely skin consultation. What we need is a regular consultant in the prison itself,” he adds.

According to the CHRI report, “Conditions in the sub-jails are extremely unhygienic due to the lack of proper cleaning facilities, which exacerbates health challenges inside prisons. The cells are cleaned by inmates, who lack the necessary supply of phenol and water.”

(With Rashmi Rajput)

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