Of all the things the 59-year-old forgot in the last 12 years, the one that came back quickest to her was how to add tadka to a dish. The woman, serving a life-term for killing her husband, is one of five to be shifted from a closed prison to India’s first semi-open one for women at Delhi’s Tihar Jail a few months ago. And like her, many women are recalling things they had long forgotten behind bars.
The semi-open prison for women is being inaugurated on June 20, Tihar Jail Director General Ajay Kashyap told The Indian Express. “We did a soft-launch last October and five female inmates have been lodged there since. On Friday, I directed that five more women inmates be lodged there, after I interviewed them and evaluated the recommendations of the Selection Committee,” he said. Of the five women set to join, three have been sentenced for murder and two for dowry deaths.
The premises are a four-minute drive from Jail No. 6 where, as of Monday, 375 women inmates are lodged. Located near the residential buildings of Tihar Jail personnel inside the main complex, it is a duplex surrounded by a tiny garden, with tomatoes and chillies growing on a patch of land. On the first floor is a work station, where the five women make sewiyan. Upstairs is their dormitory, comprising 10 wooden beds and thick mattresses, two coolers, a television set, a new refrigerator and an open kitchen.
“They all work in the jail complex and get paid for it, and use the money to buy supplies. They do their own budgeting, decide what they want to eat, when and where… we don’t interfere at all,” said Sarita Sabharwal, the women’s jail superintendent.
Semi-open and open prisons for men have been functioning at Tihar Jail for a while now. “In open prisons, inmates can go around the city to work, meet their family, and then return. The selection criteria is that inmates should have spent two years in semi-open prisons, and have an exemplary record. Female inmates will be applicable for this in two years,” said Kashyap.
Sabharwal said that the female inmates selected to occupy the semi-open jails have to submit Rs 10,000 as security. “Their families are more than happy to do that,” she said.
Preparing tea, a 50-year-old inmate said: “We don’t miss anyone at the closed prison. We wake up and do yoga, water the plants, clean the ‘house’, decide the menu and cook, before starting work so we can earn.” The group requests Sabharwal for a “mixer grinder”, and tells her their Monday menu – porridge for breakfast, ladyfinger and lentils for lunch, and arbi for dinner.
Sabharwal said that “at least two female inmates refused to shift to the semi-open jail even after they were selected because they said they’ll miss their friends at the closed jail”.
Unlike closed prisons where inmates don’t have access to cash, inmates at semi-open prisons are allowed to keep Rs 1,000 each. “I had forgotten what money looked like, its texture and smell… now I remember. This shift is training us for life outside, you see. I am re-learning how to maintain a house,” said the woman.
Kashyap said the criteria for selection for semi-open prisons, as per the Delhi Prison Rules 2018, is that the “convict should have completed at least two-third of her total punishment in a closed jail, including remission; she should have maintained excellent conduct inside the prison and performed labour, if allotted to her, with devotion”.
Apart from this, “nothing adverse should have been noticed during the inmate’s parole or furlough; and there should be no pending cases against her”. After Sabharwal recommends inmates “on the basis of their record”, the Selection Committee forwards a list to Kashyap, who then interviews them.
“I try to understand their resolve, aspirations, future plans, when they will leave, and take a call. Foreign nationals who are convicts, members of organised crime groups and terrorists are not applicable… basically people with a high flight risk,” said Kashyap.