Wednesday, March 3, 2021
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Mayhem Behind the Bars

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Indian jails are hell holes of corruption, drug dealing, gang wars and sexual predators. Far from being institutions to reform
criminals, they are sliding into more chaos and despair

By Ramesh Menon

Jails are supposed to be institutions which reform criminals and show them a new path after they realize the gravity of their crimes. But have overcrowded Indian jails failed in this effort? Why have they become dens of corruption, drug consumption, gang wars, ugly fights and jail-breaks? Why are VIP prisoners treated differently? Why has sexual exploitation continued? Why have prisoners who are too poor to pay bribes for basic facilities like edible food, suffered through their terms? Many questions. Disturbing answers.
Far from emerging as reformatories, jails have become veritable hell holes. Many prisoners stay there for years as undertrials suffering humiliation, bloody fights, sickness caused by unhygienic conditions and fighting off sexual predators. Many have committed suicide as it was their only escape. Questions of security and human rights are often raised about Indian jails.
Tihar Jail

The most recent incident has been in Tihar Jail, one of the largest and supposedly best-run jails in India, which saw much reform and change when Magsaysay Award winner Kiran Bedi was at the helm of affairs. However, it has recently seen a series of gang wars, murders and jail-breaks.

Early this month, two prominent undertrials in Tihar got into a fight to establish supremacy and ended up killing each other. Ishwar, who was being tried for attempt-to-murder, multiple cases of snatching and robbery, was returning from an eye camp within the jail when Anil Choudhary, who has been charged with numerous robberies, attacked him with a sharp piece of metal, inflicting him with deep gashes. Ishwar reportedly fell unconscious while three of his aides caught Choudhary and attacked him. Both were rushed to hospital but could not be saved. Ishwar had been sent to prison numerous times in the last eight years, while Choudhary had been in prison for the last three years. Last month, two rival gang leaders were killed in another fight between them in a moving police van.

It is not just Tihar. Every jail has such stories that reek of corruption and mismanagement. Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail—which housed Ajmal Kasab, hanged for being part of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks—houses some of India’s most wanted criminals and terrorists. It is perceived to be one of the worst kept jails in the country. Like most jails in India, it is cramped and overcrowded.

I n any jail, a prisoner has to pay a price to get decent facilities to get away from stinking and unkempt cells which lead to sickness. Lunch is ready as early as 7 am in the morning and dinner at 3pm in the prisons of Maharashtra. As there are no refrigeration facilities, imagine what condition the food would be in by the time it is consumed. They are stored unhygenically and that too in hot and humid places.
Arthur Road Jail

This fortnight, the Maharashtra government ordered a high-level probe into irregularities in Arthur Road Jail about an alleged illegal rate card where inmates are charged money for basic amenities. The home department has asked Additional Director General of Police (prisons) Meeran Borwankar to look into the allegations and take immediate action against the guilty.

Six months ago, five undertrials—three of whom were detained under the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act (MCOCA)—dramatically escaped from Nagpur Central Jail. A day later, when Borwankar searched the jail, she found 23 mobile phones. Some of them had internet and WhatsApp facilities. Liquor bottles and batteries were also found in the jail.

Vijay Gawli, a jail staffer, had earlier told the media that inmates were allowed access to mobile phones by the senior supervisory staff. Gawli had said that seniors often provided liquor, cigarettes and mobile phones to prisoners. He alleged that even sex workers were brought into jail to entertain some prisoners. In fact, Gawli had lodged a police complaint alleging that a senior jail official had forced him to sign statements saying that his comments to the media were incorrect. A show cause notice was served on Gawli for this “indiscretion”.

Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis suspended Prison Superintendent Vaibhav Kamble after the jail break and ordered an inquiry by the Director General of the Anti-Corruption Bureau. Fadnavis said: “The prisoners could not have escaped without internal help. We had installed mobile jammers in the prison, but their operations were suspended before the prisoners escaped.”

Once upon a time, the Maharashtra police enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best in the country. However, in recent years, this has got ruined with police officials involved in rape, extortion, underworld links, disproportionate assets, custodial death, fake encounters, shoddy investigation and so on. From 2006 to 2010, over 21,000 cases were registered against the state policepersons, including ones of illegal detention and custodial death.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) puts the state police fifth on a list headed by Madhya Pradesh (93,710 complaints), followed by Uttar Pradesh (34,364), Delhi (29,165) and Punjab (23,090).

Maharashtra with a 1,80,000 strong police force is the largest in the country. It has a ratio of 17.93 policemen for a population of 10,000 which is also the best in the country. States with a larger population like Uttar Pradesh have a lesser ratio.

Last year, a report of the Public Accounts Committee in Maharashtra made a searing indictment of prisons in the state, pointing out how they were riddled with corruption, that addictive substances were being provided to inmates and that they had inadequate manpower to guard these facilities.

The report proposed that jammers be installed to paralyze mobile phones within jails and insisted that CCTV cameras be put up. It said that some districts like Gondia did not have any facility to house prisoners. The report said: “Society will not be safe if there are no prisons. The number of criminals in the state is increasing. As criminals from other states are also being kept in Maharashtra, the number of jails we have is falling short.”

The state has 47 jails and 172 sub-jails and also has the reputation of having the most corrupt jails in the country. Posting to a Maharashtra jail is considered a coveted one, said a source to India Legal, as it involves rampant corruption. The source said that it is common to pay a price for beedis, cigarettes, liquor, better facilities and also to escape harassment at the hand of jail officials. To corner VIPs into paying bribes, they are often put into cramped cells all alone on the pretext that there is a security threat when there is none, the source added.

Numerous jail officials have cases lodged against them for criminal activities. Two years ago, IPS officer AK Jain was convicted in a corruption case and sentenced to five years in jail. He was also asked to pay a fine of `1.5 lakh by a Mumbai court. He and his chartered accountant were arrested by the Mumbai Police for accepting a bribe.

In a knee-jerk reaction to the goings on at Yerawada Central Jail in Pune, which is one of the largest in South Asia, the Maharashtra government transferred Superintendent Sharad Khatavkar replacing him with Yogesh Desai. Many wondered if that was a sound decision as Desai was under the scanner in three cases, including the killing of Chhota Rajan’s henchman OP Singh and an alleged recruitment fraud.

When Desai was the superintendent of Adharwadi Jail in Kalyan, he was caught by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) on Jan-uary 10, 2001, for accepting a bribe of `15,000 from a relative of a jail inmate. But later, Desai was acquitted of the charge.
However, he came under the scanner again in November 2002 when OP Singh was killed by another gang member, DK Rao, in Nashik Road Jail. Desai, who was then superintendent of the jail, was suspended.

Later, Desai was named in alleged irregularities in recruitment of prison staff. A total of 13 officers from the prison department, including Desai, were being investigated after a case was filed with the Pune police alleging that these officials collected money from candidates and passed them in a recruitment examination for sentries. This case is still pen-ding in court. He was later transferred out of Yerawada.

Mr. Yogesh Desai ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
Yogesh Desai

Meanwhile, the Bombay High Court too had come down on Borwankar for the manner in which she dealt with a case of alleged harassment by Asha Bajaj, a Powai resident. Bajaj was sent to Yerawada mental asylum on June 14. She managed to escape on June 16 and filed a petition in the high court challenging the police action against her. The court ruled that her detention in a mental hospital was unlawful. According to the 22-page judgment, the division bench of Justice Bilal Nazki and Justice Ashutosh Kumbhkoni had expressed unhappiness with the role played by the senior IPS officer and the conduct of a magistrate who sent Bajaj to the mental asylum. The judges said: “We are of the view that the whole exercise of sending Bajaj to the mental hospital was done with a preconceived plan in which the main role has been played by Borwankar.”

The court observed: “If Meeran Borwankar had any grievance, she could have taken recourse to law and Asha Bajaj could have been booked for the offences she might have committed. But the course taken by Meeran Borwankar was absolutely wrong and was not expected of an officer of the calibre of Borwankar. There was no material to suggest that there was any reason for the police officer to believe that Asha Bajaj’s presence was dangerous by reason of her mental illness.”

Borwankar’s name has also been linked to a CCTV scam. She reportedly got cameras installed in all the prisons of Maharashtra but most of them were not in working condition. The bills for the cameras were inflated and the quality was poor. No proper tender was floated for the project. A complaint has been filed before the president of India to take action against notorious officers in Maharashtra.

The jail administration in Maharashtra needs to perk up and clean up the system before the virus of corruption spreads even more. Many of the officials were known for their illegal activities when Satej Patil—also known as Bunty Patil—was the minister of state for home in Maharashtra.

Right now, there does not seem to be any concrete plan to reform the jail administration or reach out to reform the prisoners.
In the Pradeep Annasaheb Pathrikar vs State of Maharashtra, a sessions court in Mumbai in July 2015 did not grant relief to the Superintendent of Arthur Road Jail, Vasudav Burkule, and Deputy Superinten- dent Pradeep Pathrikar in a bribery case. They were charge-sheeted by the ACB under sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

It was alleged that Pathrikar in connivance with Burkule, demanded a bribe of `40,000 from the prison officer for ensuring that he cleared one of the papers in the departmental Prison Officer Grade II examination. The prosecution made out a case based on a complaint filed by the prison officer to the ACB. They alleged that based on the complaint, ACB had laid a trap for Pathrikar and he
was nabbed.

According to the ACB, the prison officer was asked by Pathrikar to go to his office and hand over the cash. He was told to put the cash on the center table. After doing so, the officer signaled to ACB officials and Pathrikar was caught red-handed. According to the prosecution, all evidence showed that Burkule wanted the amount and Pathrikar was carrying out the plan of action.

However, Pathrikar in his discharge application to the sessions court, challenged the charge-sheet and denied all allegations. He even accused the prison officer of framing him. Pathrikar further alleged that he was used as a tool to frame Burkule. On all these grounds, he claimed discharge.

Looking at all the evidence and facts and circumstances, the sessions court found that both Pathrikar and Burkule were indeed guilty. It observed that during the course of the investigation, prima facie it appeared that the amount was accepted by Pathrikar on behalf of Burkule.

The defense tried to allude to other cases to bail them out, but the court was not convinced. However, it ruled that the accused may raise their objections once again at the time of the final hearing. There was no room for entertaining them at the initial stage of framing charges. It rejected the discharge application and allowed ACB to proceed with the investigation.

Jails all over India have such stories to tell. In 2010, Wikileaks quoting a diplomatic cable, said that the Red Cross had briefed US diplomats about the use of electrocution, beatings and sexual humiliation of detainees in Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal Jail in 2005.
Former Director General of Police Kiran Bedi told India Legal: “We all know what is wrong. If the leadership in jails walks around every morning instead of sitting in their offices, they will immediately know what is wrong and what needs to be done.” She insists that “the other officers should also walk around and connect with prisoners, opening communication lines”.

When Bedi was in charge of Tihar Jail, Bedi transformed it into a jail that attracted international attention. She made prisoners study, gave them vocational training, introduced them to daily spiritual exercises and lectures, put gangsters in a separate ward and led from the front. The results were there for all to see. But that, as we see, was merely a flash in the pan.

There are good practices to learn from in the Indian context itself. But unless there are prison reforms, jails here will only slide into more chaos and despair. Corruption, gang wars and jail-breaks cannot be wished away. They need to be dealt with sternly if there has to be light at the end of the tunnel.

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