FROM all accounts — except that of the prison authorities — violence inside Mumbai’s Byculla jail for women, where an inmate was fatally assaulted, allegedly by jail staff, is not unusual. Former inmates and relatives of women currently in the jail, where over 200 inmates rioted for better facilities after murder convict Manjula Shetye was assaulted Saturday, have described life there as “hell”, filled with violence.
The Byculla jail for women is actually a jail within a jail, where male police personnel and officers are also posted. One former inmate said, “The jail authorities impose many restrictions on women as there is a male prison too. This makes it difficult for women inmates to easily access even the superintendent or the common staff doctor. One has to approach the junior-rung officials many times to even get out of the women’s wing.”
Earlier, the Arthur Road jail had a separate women’s barrack. After an increase in female prisoners, authorities in 2002 transferred them to Byculla, until then a male prison. Today, Byculla jail can house 365, including 165 women, but prison officials say that at any point there is severe overcrowding with at least 250 women lodged. Now, 291 have been booked for rioting.
“Beatings are very frequent in the jail,” said a woman recently released on bail after two months in jail in a drug offence. “The guards hit you in full view of other inmates to scare them, and it is always five or six guards who gang up to overpower the women.” Six jail guards have booked for murdering Shetye, who had apparently asked for two eggs and five pieces of paav.
Several women have said the six policewomen had created a climate of terror and that speaking out against injustice would result in severe consequences. The guards, one former inmate said, informally appoint three monitors in each barracks. “The guards get all their work done through the monitors. The monitors decided what time we wake up and go to sleep,” she said.
Bhushan Kumar Upadhyay, additional director general of police, prisons, countered reports of the assault on Shetye saying prisoners are never hit in “normal course”. “Jail guards only use force in case they are assaulted by prisoners. There are also CCTV cameras everywhere in the jail,” he told The Indian Express.
The woman recently released, on the other hand, alleged that guards assaulting prisoners take care to find blind corners that CCTV cameras don’t cover.
Shashikala Patankar, who was in the jail in 2015 for allegedly peddling 112 kg mephedrone, claims to have been witness to a brutal assault. “It was for a very petty reason. Afterwards, they did not even take the woman to the hospital,” she claimed.
Before her release on bail, Patankar was among the jail’s high-profile inmates, which also lodged Jaya Chheda who is serving a life sentence for murdering her husband, matka king Suresh Bhagat. Currently, the jail’s maximum-security prisoner is media executive Indrani Mukerjea, arrested for the murder of her daughter Sheena Bora. Mukerjea, who has two guards deputed to watch her round the clock, is among those booked for rioting.
In the days since the death, law enforcement officials have said the events of June 23-24 are rare for a women’s prison. The National Crime Records Bureau listed deaths of five women in Maharashtra’s jails in 2015: four due to natural causes, one suicide.
The revised Model Prison Manual, published by the Home Ministry in 2016, included amendments relating to women prisoners: sensitising and training jail staff in sexual violence, and restrictions on harsh punishment such as close confinement of pregnant women.
Former inmates spoke of neglect towards basic needs including hygiene and health. Every woman is given six sanitary napkins per month, and those who do not have family members sending money are unable to buy more from the canteen. “So they end up helping others with their chores in exchange for napkins,” a former inmate said. Another said lactating and pregnant women are supposed to be given groundnut and jaggery but each one gets less than prescribed.
Women are given one bar of soap and washing soda. “Water is a luxury. We get a limited supply each day. We fill two drums in each barrack for bathing, washing and drinking. There is a water purifier, usually accessed by only those prisoners who have money or clout,” said an inmate.
“Even before this incident, violence has been very common. If you complain against anything to a visiting authority, staffers resort to violence after they are gone,” she said.
Retired Justice S R Bannurmath, chairman of the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission, knows he will find a spruced-up jail during his announced visits. “That’s why I conduct surprise checks. Except my driver, no one knows where I go,” he said. The commission has given the state prison department two weeks’ time to submit a preliminary inquiry report. Bannurmath, who oversaw a two-day workshop for superintendents of all the state’s jails in Pune on June 22-23, termed Shetye’s death unfortunate. “These things happen in spite of all that we do.”
A relative of a woman currently in jail said unrest had been brewing for a long time. “The rice and paav they give are full of worms. Women just mix some water with the rice and eat it,” she said. The relative was herself lodged recently in Byculla jail, on a drug charge.
Upadhyay, the additional DG, said overcrowding was a serious issue, and added the quality of food has improved in the past few years. “The food may not be like home food, but it is of good quality. Our inquiry is under way into what led to rioting,” he said.
Some inmates said women are made to clean the guards’ living quarters in weekends and wash their clothes. Many would apply repeatedly for transfers to sub-jails in other cities. “Byculla jail narak hai. (Byculla jail is hell) After being sent there on and off for six years, I never want do anything that will send me there,” one former inmate said.
While hearing a petition on the conditions of jails in Maharashtra, Bombay High Court had directed a prison reforms committee be set up. A government resolution was passed on June 1 for the formation of a five-member committee of retired judge Dr S Radhakrishnan, additional DG Upadhyay, Dr Vijay Raghavan of TISS, retired jail superintendent S N Chavan and a joint or deputy secretary (prisons). “The committee is yet to meet. Its terms of references are wide including working on reforms in tune with UN conventions, the Model prison manual, 2016 to bring about changes in the existing prison system,” Raghavan said.