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Explained: What’s inside Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail, and why does it have such a reputation?

Both Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya have told courts in the UK about the conditions in the prison while seeking to fend off their extradition to India

Written by Sadaf Modak , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai | Updated: September 18, 2020 8:23:59 am
Relatives of the prisoner wearing a mask in front of Arthur Road jail. (File/Express Photo by Ganesh Shirsekar)

The Mumbai Central Prison, better known as Arthur Road jail, has been at the centre of the extradition proceedings of fugitive diamond merchant, Nirav Modi before a UK court.

During the proceedings earlier this month, Nirav Modi’s lawyers called it an “old-fashioned sweatbox”. One of the oldest jails in the country, Arthur Road jail was also contentious during the proceedings to extradite Vijay Mallya in 2018.

Why was Arthur Road jail mentioned before the court in the UK?

Both Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi, while facing extradition proceedings before a court in UK, claimed that Arthur Road jail, which had been earmarked for them, did not have humane conditions. The lawyer for Nirav Modi, who is facing an extradition trial at the Westminster Magistrates’ court, called the jail an “old-fashioned sweatbox” earlier this month.

The building is made of stone, “shielded in a steel structure”, and is a veritable “oven”, the lawyer said. In the context of the outbreak of Covid-19 at the jail, Nirav Modi submitted that it was always overcrowded, and did not have adequate facilities especially for medical needs. (All 183 inmates who had tested positive at the jail have recovered.)

Earlier in 2018, Mallya had complained that the prison cell that was being prepared for him does not get natural light, and it would be a violation of human rights to keep him there.

Which part of the Arthur Road Jail were they complaining about?

Both Nirav Modi and Mallya, if extradited to India, are proposed to be housed in Arthur Road jail’s Barrack number 12. Videos of the barrack were submitted to the court during both the trials to underline that its fulfills standard recommendations, ensuring natural light, ventilation, a western style bathroom attached to the cell, and a plasma TV set.

In Mallya’s case, the British judge, while ordering his extradition in 2018, had expressed satisfaction about the cell in which Mallya was proposed to be lodged.

Barrack number 12 is a ground-plus-one structure with eight cells on each floor. There are attached bathrooms, and inmates are provided with a mattress, pillow, and bedsheet, along with melamine crockery.

The barracks where Mallya and Nirav Modi are proposed to be lodged if they are extradited, are separate from the other parts of the overcrowded jail, where undertrials have often complained about so much congestion that they do not have space to move, and have to sleep on only one side.

Recent inmates of this barrack include former Star India CEO Peter Mukerjea, who was in jail from 2015 to March 2020 for the alleged murder of Sheena Bora, the daughter of his former wife Indrani Mukerjea who is his co-accused.

NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal was also lodged here, and officials say they were seen sharing their food. Bhujbal’s nephew Samir was also lodged in the barrack.

Other inmates of the barrack include the Punjab National Bank scam accused, including Vipul Ambani; and HDIL promoters Rakesh and Sarang Wadhawan, accused in the PMC alleged fraud case.

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What is the history of the Arthur Road jail?

The jail was established in 1925-26 by the British. The road on which it was built was named Arthur Road after Sir George Arthur, who was the Governor of Bombay from 1842-46. The road was renamed in the 1970s to Sane Guruji Marg after Pandit Sadashiv Sane, a teacher and social activist associated with the working class movement.

While the official name is Mumbai Central Prison, the name Arthur Road jail remains widely used in popular culture, police circles, and court documents.

The Report of the Indian Jails Committee, 1919-20, which is among the earliest available documents on jails in pre-Independence India, mentions the existence of two prisons in the city that was then part of the Bombay Presidency – the Bombay Common Prison and the House of Correction, which was located in Byculla.

The report mentions that the worst overcrowding at that time was found in prisons of the Bombay Presidency. It describes the Bombay Common Prison as a “collection of very old and unsuitable buildings which though long condemned still remain in use”. More jails were subsequently constructed, including the Arthur Road jail. It was declared as a central jail in 1972.

According to prison officials, Arthur Road jail is spread over six acres with 20 barracks and cells within them. The current capacity of the jail is 804, but the number of inmates surges to over 3,000 sometimes, making it one of the most overcrowded jails in the country.

There are also high-security barracks called “anda cells” for their shape resembling an egg. These circular structures have had famous inmates including gangsters like Mustafa Dossa, Abu Salem, Arun Gawli, and others like actor Sanjay Dutt, who was jailed for his role in the 1993 bomb blasts. During the trial of the blasts, more than 130 persons were facing trial, which led the authorities to set up a court within the jail premises for security purposes.

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What happened when Ajmal Kasab was tried in the jail?

For the trial of Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist captured alive after the November 26, 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, a high-security cell was constructed in 2009. Since ferrying him to a special court would be a risk, a 20-foot bomb-proof tunnel was also constructed from his cell to the court set up within the jail premises.

Till his trial concluded and he was ferried to Yerwada Central Jail in Pune to be hanged on December 21, 2012, residents living in the area around the prison were given separate passes for entry and exit.

After Kasab was executed, his old cell was used to lodge Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal, also an accused in the 2008 terror attack case. Ansari had pleaded before court that he should not be kept in solitary confinement in the cell that had previously housed Kasab, claiming that he was hallucinating about the Lashkar terrorist.

What is life like for the inmates of the jail?

While the jail was built on the outskirts of the city in 1925-26, it is now a bustling part of the city in central Mumbai. Recently, jail officials wrote to a planning authority in the city to prop up view cutters on a monorail track that goes through the road outside the jail, stating that the prison premises could be seen from the train.

The jail is usually in the news for how overcrowded it is. Primarily housing undertrials, it is a preferred jail to lodge them as it is close to the Mumbai city civil and district sessions court. Undertrials have also often complained of the corruption inside, claiming that some gang leaders could even access phones and allegedly live a lavish lifestyle inside, for prices running to lakhs.

Depending on loyalty to a gang or the prisoner’s financial status outside, the hierarchy of undertrials is set in the prison. The one without either is made to clean toilets, and sleep near its door. Undertrials have also written to the court to complain of lack of medical facilities.

The jail has also seen gang wars. In 2010, gangster Abu Salem was attacked by his co-accused in the 1993 serial blasts case, Mustafa Dossa. Salem’s face was slashed with a sharpened spoon. After the incident, the two were sent to separate jails.

In 2006, one inmate died after a fight broke out between rival groups belonging to the Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan gangs. To avoid such incidents, jail authorities lodge antagonistic groups in separate areas of the jail.

A proposal to construct one more jail in the eastern suburbs of Mankhurd to ease the load on Arthur Road jail is still pending.

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