As a spate of complaints throws Tihar Jail under the spotlight, Abhishek Angad looks at the inner workings of India’s largest prison complex that houses over 14,000 inmates
Last month, the Westminster Magistrate’s Court in London rejected India’s request to extradite suspected bookie Sanjeev Chawla.
The reason: Conditions in which he would be kept inside Tihar Jail would “violate” his human rights. The judge further said that there are strong grounds to believe that Chawla would be subjected to “torture, inhuman or degrading treatment” due to overcrowding, lack of medical provisions, and violence from other inmates or prison staff, which is “endemic in Tihar”.
This indictment is one in a series of developments that have given south Asia’s largest jail complex a reason to look within. On November 1, two weeks after the extradition request was rejected, Tihar was in the news again after 47 inmates alleged assault by prison staff. The Delhi High Court directed the MHA secretary to probe why CCTV cameras were not working in jail number 3 on September 13 — when the alleged incident took place.
The jail has also faced allegations from gangster Neeraj Bawana, who has moved a court plea claiming inhuman treatment; Indian Mujahideen founder Yasin Bhatkal, who has pressed for better facilities; and suspected al-Qaeda militant Saimun Rahman, who has alleged sexual harassment. To understand what goes on inside the prison, The Indian Express spoke to undertrials, ex-inmates, police personnel and prison officials.
In 2012, Dharmendra Kumar (31) was charged with killing a relative over a property dispute in southwest Delhi’s Dabri and sent to Tihar. He was acquitted in January this year. In the four years he spent in jail, what bothers him most is the alleged medical apathy towards convicts and undertrials. “A year ago, I had fever and went to the jail hospital . The doctor gave me an injection. In the next two days, I developed unbearable back pain. I went back and another doctor told me the needle was left behind in my body,” alleged Dharmendra, adding that he still suffers from back pain. He further claimed that he was taken to Deen Dayal Hospital, where an X-ray showed “a sharp needle-like object” inside his body.
“The doctor didn’t tell me what had happened. I raised a hue and cry and they suggested I go in for surgery. But I chose not to — some doctors said it could make things worse,” he alleged, adding that the Tihar hospital refused to hand over his medical records. He produced an x-ray he took recently — in which the needle could be seen — to The Indian Express.
In November this year, Laxman Kumar Naydu (25), charged with murdering his mother in southwest Delhi’s Sagarpur, started shaking during his hearing. Seeing his face turn pale yellow, the court arranged two glasses of honey water for him. It then observed that either he was not being treated properly, or jail doctors and visiting psychiatrists were not competent enough to treat him.
Court records also highlighted that after he called police and confessed, Naydu had expressed a “desire to die”. It stated that when he went to prison doctors in September and told them about his mental state, they advised him to “leave food if he wants to die”.
“Since September 7, he has not eaten. He is crumbling and his body is shivering,” noted Additional Sessions Judge Ajay Pandey, directing jail authorities to send a weekly health report. But on the next date of hearing, November 13, no such update was received.
“The accused had not been eating for two months… Till he is in jail, he has a right to life. Officials should take proper care of him,” the judge said, ordering that a copy be sent to the Tihar Director General. Naydu’s lawyer Indu Kaul said: “How can jail doctors ask him not to eat? He is supposed to be treated, not left out.”
On September 13 this year, violence broke out in various wards of jail number 3. While undertrials alleged “human rights violations”, claiming they were “mercilessly beaten by security officials”, jail authorities said “minimum force” was used to control inmates. Eventually, a writ petition prompted the Delhi High Court to order an inquiry.
The inquiry report raised several concerns: Of the 83 CCTV cameras in jail number 3, 64 were out of order between September 11-21. Further, the Delhi government standing counsel informed the court that of the 500 CCTVs in the entire jail, 10% remained non-functional at any given point.
Pulling up jail authorities and the Delhi government, the court noted that Tihar is “a high-security zone” with an inmate population of over 14,500 — much higher than the sanctioned capacity — and that functional CCTVs were a “non-compromisable imperative”.
The petitioner in the case, Jamal alias Ranjha (30), is an accused in the 2015 Karkardooma firing case, in which a Delhi Police personnel had been killed. On a weekday, Jamal arrives at Karkardooma Court number 59, flanked by Delhi Armed Police’s 3rd Battalion. As arguments on framing of charges begin, he talks to his lawyer.
“Wheelchair ab hata diya hai, paer aur haath mein dard hai (They have removed the wheelchair; there’s pain in the feet and hands),” he tells the lawyer. Speaking to The Indian Express while being taken from the jail van to the court, Jamal says there is no physiotherapy in jail. He stretches out his hand, showing how he can’t move his fingers.
Jamal recounts the day when he lost consciousness and woke up in DDU Hospital. “I think I was poisoned, so I demanded a probe. Authorities told me I had consumed drugs. I told them to do blood tests to ascertain the truth. Instead, I was beaten up and sent to the jail hospital,” he alleged.
Speaking about the September 13 incident, he alleged: “Around 7.30 am, an alarm went off and officials beat me up… Why don’t you get the hospital’s CCTV footage? Everything is recorded.” Jamal was referring to the same CCTVs which Tihar authorities said were not working at the time.
He further claimed that authorities beat up inmates in three wards. “Other inmates of high-risk ward were also beaten up, but authorities said we fought among ourselves. This is untrue as people in high-risk wards never mingle with other prisoners,” he alleged.
The affidavit filed by Tihar, however, states that two groups of prisoners “gathered near the temple and assaulted each other”. It added that prison staff intervened immediately, and a quick response team was called in when the situation “got out of control”. It also stated that the injuries included “lacerations, bruises, contusions, stapled wounds and abrasions”.
Jamal’s lawyer, Mehmood Pracha, said, “In most of these cases… the motive is not to discipline or control the inmate; rather it is oblique, guided by vested interests.” Every jail in Tihar is divided into wards: high-risk ones for those accused of heinous crimes, another for habitual offenders, and a third for first-time offenders, who make up about 70% of the inmates.
Inmates The Indian Express spoke to said all of them — except those in high-risk wards — have to get out of their cells at 6 am, when they are counted by authorities. Around 11 am, after lunch, they are asked to go inside their wards for counting. The same routine follows at 3 pm and 7 pm.
An ex-inmate, who served 18 months in jail after he was charged with rape — before being acquitted — said, “Things are far from ideal, but there has been lot of improvement… I know that police brutality is worse than the brutality of jail staff.” But even basic facilities, like toilets, continue to be a problem. The inmate stayed in ward number 1 of jail number 3, which comprised 100 inmates. “There were eight toilets, of which four usually didn’t work.”
Pointing to the difficulty in implementing reforms such as rehabilitation for drug addicts, the inmate said drugs and tobacco are available in prison — but at a premium. In fact, just last year, a warden was arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle marijuana and hashish into the prison. “People would consume marijuana and other stuff. I don’t know how it got inside. Sometimes, I smoked a bidi,” the inmate claimed.
He also alleged that tobacco is sold inside the jail — Rs 200 for the small amount that “fits inside a plastic bottle cap”. “Effectively, a packet of khaini costs Rs 6,000, as compared to Rs 10 outside. Inmates mix it with leftover tea leaves and roll it in a paper to smoke.”
Largely cut off from the outside, inmates have also evolved a unique lingo, he said. Some common phrases include:
* Crossing karna: Where an inmate injures himself on purpose
* Taang dena: When an inmate is allegedly tortured
* Khacchra: An inmate under the influence of drugs, who doesn’t care about day-to-day activities
* Fatta: A 2×2 ft space used by inmates for sleeping.
He added that “lack of employment” inside the jail is also a cause of concern: “Most of the commercial work is done by convicts. Undertrials have fewer opportunities.”
Kiran Bedi, credited with several reforms at Tihar during her stint as IG in the 1990s, told The Indian Express, “I started mobile feedback boxes directly, under my supervision, for prisoners to make any kind of complaint or grievance. A zero-cost reform, it helped me directly deal with their problems. Daily, I would make rounds in at least one jail and respond to complaints. That way, prisoners believed somebody is listening to them and it helped develop respect.”
For the record
Raj Kumar, Additional Inspector General, Tihar jail, responds to the claims-
On the London court not extraditing Sanjeev Chawla:
“This is wrong, because we had told them we will keep him in an independent cell. We had given full details about the medical treatment, and written that we will keep him in a cell with a Western toilet. Chawla doesn’t want to come to India… These are rich people, and since he does not have any ground to refuse, they make up stories about Tihar.”
Regarding non-functional CCTV cameras:
“It was one incident. By chance our hard disk got corrupted, and hence the recording. High Court did the right thing by asking for an inquiry.”
On allegations of violence, drugs and medical apathy inside prison:
One can put any allegation he wants. Allegations need to be substantiated, proven; it’s not necessary that an allegation by an inmate is right. Our work is to respond to that and leave it to the courts to decide.”
Tihar has made a series of efforts to make life better for inmates, and provide them training for when they get out:
* Prisoner participation in games and sports activities has seen a leap, thanks to an event popularly called the ‘Tihar Olympics’
* A cultural event, ‘Ethnic Tihar’, sees competitions on music, dance, shairi, qawwali, & painting
* Computer training centres, libraries set up
* Jail authorities recently partnered with Pearl Academy to impart a fashion course to women inmates
* Jail authorities hold a singing competition called ‘Tihar idols’. Tihar also has a music band called ‘The Flying Souls’