From waiting long hours to spend some time with their loved ones lodged behind bars to initiatives like Gala Bhet, where children can meet their parents in open spaces, or families abandoning woman prisoners, a recent research study spanning 11 prisons across the country has documented experiences of prisoners meeting families.
Called ‘Prisoners’ contact with their families: Procedures, practices and experiences’, the study by Prayas, a field action project of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, proposes the need to incorporate necessary modifications to prison manuals and practices to make these visits an important part of prisoners’ rights. It was conducted through 71 interviews with prisoners, families and prison staff in Mumbai Central prison (Arthur Road jail), Byculla district prison, Thane, Kalyan and Yerwada central prison in Pune, Tihar and Mandoli jails in Delhi, Gurugram district prison in Haryana and three prisons in Tamil Nadu – Puzhal, Thiruchirapalli and Coimbatore. The study also recommends the need for welfare officers to bridge the gap between inmates and family members.
“There are good practices in each of the prisons we visited, which can be emulated by others. For instance, feedback from prisoners and families on Gala Bhet in Maharashtra shows that it can be tried in other jails as well. Tamil Nadu facilitates visits by children during weekends so that they don’t have to miss school,” said Surekha Sale, who was part of the data collection team.
In Maharashtra, the study found that while there were good practices like money order facility and an intercom for prisoners to hear their family members more clearly, it lacked facilities like pre-booking mulaqats or counselling support for prisoners or special programmes for prisoners who do not have contact with their family and continued to have cancellation of visits as a means of punishment for prison conduct, a practice done away with by Puzhal jail.
The study said a regular sight was to see waiting sheds outside the jail crowded, with some lacking basic facilities such as drinking water, toilet or canteen for those awaiting their turn stretching into hours, or waiting rooms with no ventilation. “This issue of lack of space and infrastructure for the mulaqat room was one that was raised by many of the staff who were interviewed. The concern of overpopulation, understaffing and insufficient infrastructure continues to curtail abilities for improvement in prisons. This affects the time and quality of mulaqat as well,” the study says.
The state allows undertrial prisoners to meet their family once a week, while convicts can meet them once in 15 days. Most feedback from families in the state was difficulty in navigating the system of registering as visitors, a majority of whom are women. Many woman prisoners also spoke of losing contact with their loved ones facing abandonment after they were arrested.
“I come from a distant village, and a woman accused of a crime is seen in poor light. I was boycotted from mine. No one came to meet me and I don’t expect any of my family members to come. Even if they wanted to, they will not be allowed in the village… When you are in prison and you come to know or you feel that there is nobody out there for you, you lose hope to even live. Mulaqats make you think that there is hope and you can come out one day and there are people for you,” a woman respondent lodged in a state prison told a social worker.
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