Surviving jail is hard for the poor. It is harder still for the poor behind bars for sexual offences
It is still not an established fact that Ram Singh, the main accused of the 16 December gang-rape and murder case, committed suicide. What we know for sure is that ‘hanging’ was the cause of his death.
The family of the rape victim calls it poetic justice, India’s Home Minister calls it a breach of security, and Ram Singh’s lawyer calls it murder, while jail authorities remain tightlipped, trying to buy time after having ordered a judicial probe of the man’s death in Tihar’s Jail No 3.
The judicial enquiry may or may not reveal what happened, but what seems clear is that he was harassed by other inmates in jail. His family alleges that he was sodomised.
In theory, prison is supposed to be a place where criminals are isolated from society and reformed. All inmates are equal. In practice, the theory is naïve. Take the case of Tihar, which is one of the world’s largest prisons with around 12,500 prisoners—twice its sanctioned capacity—housed in nine central jail units. Here, social hierarchies based on caste, religion, nationality and, most importantly wealth, prevail just as they do outside jail. The rich are treated better at the cost of the poor. Their clothes are washed, they get warm food, and do not have to queue up for meals (or for their ablutions). They have the means to pay extra, and they get better food, better medical attention and cleaner beds, to name just a few privileges that money can buy.
For those not familiar with the ways of jail life, it can be harrowing. It is they who are most at risk of in-prison death. Psychiatrists Dr Anju Gupta and Dr NK Girdhar, who have done a study on Tihar Jail, see a rise in suicides committed by young undertrials in the 25-34 age group; interestingly, convicted prisoners do not take their own lives. ‘Depression and hopelessness seem to be the two most common psychological factors that drive inmates to death,’ states their study report, ‘Hopelessness and suicide have a stronger correlation than depression and suicide.’
Ram Singh’s lawyer, however, points out that he was not depressed and was keen to explore his judicial options.
As for life inside jail, the testimony of former inmates speaks for itself.
Mirza Iftikhar Hussain was 22 years old when he was arrested as one of the main accused in the Lajpat Nagar blasts case of 1996. He was in Tihar for 14 years before he was acquitted in 2010. Of his time in prison, he minces no words. “Life in Tihar is worse than death if you don’t have money to spend. Rs 2,000 to 3,000 per month is the bare minimum needed for the basic necessities of life here,” he says, “Being rich or poor are the only two religions here.”
Hussain says he shared space with dreaded gangsters like Babloo Srivastava and Pappu Yadav, but did not get along well with the arms dealer Abhishek Verma. “If the inmate is rich, he is treated like a damaad (son-in-law),” he says, “food is arranged from a five-star hotel.”
If you have the money, according to him, almost anything can be delivered. Officially, if an inmate has a request, he needs to fill an application for permission, whether it is keeping dry fruits, getting a new pair of shoes, or wearing a ring. Unofficially, this costs money. Depending on the urgency and importance of the request, the jail staff charge anything from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000 to process an application.
“It is like an open market there,” says Hussain. From constables to the jail superintendent, just about everyone is a participant. Prices are high and vary vastly. A cigarette can cost upwards of Rs 25, even as much as Rs 100. Unable to bear such high costs, he started peddling smack, charas and tobacco. For this, he had to pay off the jail authorities. He would give them at least Rs 25,000 per month, he says, while his brother Mirza Nisaar Hussain, a co-accused in the same case, would pay Rs 40,000.
Hussain had clout in Jail No 3, where he was lodged. He would take protection money from its rich inmates, referred to as ‘landlords’ in prison parlance. He would also sell mobile phones, charging in excess of Rs 10,000 for a handset worth Rs 1,500 and raking in more than Rs 1 lakh a month. “It was not a regular income,” he says, “But I paid all my legal expenses out of this.” Yes, he admits with a laugh, he made more money in jail than he now does as a free man.
Sodomy, he says, is rampant in the barracks. “An inmate is taken to a bathroom if it has to be done by force,” he says in a matter-of-fact way, “The term for [such a victim] is ‘jail ki lugayi (wife).” People who face rape charges are a special target for sodomy, and their life is made hellish in other ways as well—though only if they don’t have the money. “The rich, whatever their crime, are never hassled.”
Akabi Ojara is a 36-year-old Nigerian. Just out on bail after two years in Tihar on drug dealing charges, he has not met his family for two-and-a-half years. It pains him that Nigerians are typecast as drug peddlers in Delhi. “There are some who do it, not all,” he says, “Stereotypes are debilitating.”
In Tihar, he says, committing suicide is possible, even easy. In the past 10 years, about 20 prisoners have killed themselves there. Last year, there were 18 deaths, of which two were suicides. Attempts may be many more. Ojara claims to have rescued a few prisoners himself, people trying to hang themselves by ceiling fans. Tihar’s inmates are neither allowed pyjamas with string tighteners nor shoes with laces (which require special permission). In desperation, the suicidal tear their bed sheets to shreds which they twirl into ropes.
A Muslim by birth who converted to Christianity, Ojara is contemplative when he describes the ‘slave’ like treatment meted out to poor inmates. He kept a diary of his stay in Tihar. He was housed with about 80 others in a long hall that opened onto a verandah with grills. His fellow inmates, he says, had a “callous and dangerous attitude”. The best thing was to “not get on their nerves”, for they would “mark” anyone who provoked their ire with a razor blade in “a way you don’t want to be marked”.
Some were so sick that Ojara wondered why they were in jail. Some suffered from tuberculosis and epilepsy; others were HIV-positive, he says, and many had open wounds. After his release, he has moved into a house in Delhi’s Khirki Extension.
He has no idea how he will pay the rent, but it is a lot better than jail. “If you have money and regular mulakats (visits), then you can always afford to buy special sabzi (cooked vegetables) from the jail canteen. It is not prepared with the usual jail ingredients and carefully packed and sold to inmates. If you can’t pay for it, you have to stick to the usual jail food, which is poured into your stainless steel bowls: a cup of daal and a cup of sabzi… If you are not influential, you will not find it easy to cope in jail. There is a lot of humiliation.”
The rich who run the jail economy have an easy stay, says Ojara. They secure the services of the poorer lot, who wash their clothes and toilets, offer them massages and other services. Those at the lower end of the jail hierarchy, however, have it the worst. Rapists who happen to be poor are right at the bottom.
Not only are they hated by other inmates, they are easy prey for prison bullies, with some of them subject to sodomy by groups of thugs who take it upon themselves to make them ‘pay’ for their sexual depredations.
Ojara once shared his cell with a polio patient who had just had a surgery on his posterior that needed hot-water bottle fomentation for the wound to heal. Ojara would get him that bottle, but was stopped one day by other inmates. When he insisted on going ahead, they beat him up and left him with a bloody mouth.
‘I cried and more so [was] frightened in the way we were being treated,’ he wrote in his dairy.
Strangely, in a prison where laces and pyjama strings require permission, surgical blades seem to be all over the place. Ojara mentions a fight in which blades were used like knives to ‘cut each other like chicken’, resulting in fatal injuries. According to him, this event took place on 28 August 2011 in Ward No 8 of Jail No 4, where he was lodged.
According to jail officials, nothing is amiss. Sunil Gupta, law officer of Tihar Jail, dismisses all these insider stories as ‘false propaganda’. “Transparency is the hallmark of Tihar prison,” he says.
Ram Singh’s case is not the first time that Tihar Jail’s authorities have had to face questions over what goes on inside India’s most famous prison complex. In November 2012, Sonu Punjaban, accused of running a sex racket, had tried to hang herself. In June 2011, there were reports of special treatment being extended to Commonwealth Games scam accused Suresh Kalmadi; he was found dining with the jail superintendent. Around the same time, a Tihar official was found entertaining sex workers. There have also been reports of special treatment for high-profile convicts in the Nitish Katara murder case—Vikas and Vishal Yadav. Just the other day, a probe was ordered of a speech made over the phone from Tihar by Ajay Chautala, son of former Haryana CM Om Prakash Chautala, addressing a rally at Sonepat on 20 February. Both are convicted for their role in a teacher recruitment scam. The call was made from Jail No 3, even though they are lodged in Jail No 2.
Action against officials is rare. Last year, 13 were suspended for dereliction of duty and 35 others were punished for the presence of drugs and mobile phones in prison cells. Its effect on the prison trade, however, is unclear.