Mumbai: The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) under the union home ministry has prison statistics for India for the year 2014. According to NCRB, by the end of 2014, various jails in the country had 282,879 under-trials lodged for crimes under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and special local laws. Of these, Uttar Pradesh reported the highest number of 62,515 under-trials. Bihar was next on the list with 26,800 prison inmates who hadn’t been convicted. Maharashtra was third for with 19,895 under-trials languishing in its jails by the end of 2014, according to NCRB data.

The NCRB report mentioned that Maharashtra had reported an increase of 2.9 % over the number of under-trials it had lodged in jails by the end of 2013.

It is in this dark context that Maharashtra police’s initiative to allow under-trials to call home once a week should be seen as a welcome step. The NCRB report pointed out that nearly 68% of all jail inmates in India are under-trials, underlining the need for treating these inmates better than they are treated right now.

The problem of under-trials spending a long time in prisons—sometimes in sub-human conditions— and without being prosecuted needs an altogether different response. But initiatives such as these would make the time spent in prison more bearable. To begin with, the facility to make a home phone call has been extended to undertrials at the prison in Sangli, western Maharashtra. The state’s deputy inspector general, prisons, Swati Sathe, inaugurated a ‘coin box’ at the Sangli prison to facilitate this call between an undertrial and his family members or any other person the inmate specifies. Inmates will have to use the coin box phone to make this call and pay from the money they earn in jail by doing manual jobs. The police would first verify the contact details that the under-trial gives and the jail superintendent will note down the contact details. The coin box facility was first extended to convicts one year back.

Sathe said the undertrial could make one phone call a week and talk for five minutes.

“The idea is to help the undertrial maintain his rapport with the family. Most undertrials and even convicts can be reformed and rehabilitated and family is the foundation of this reform," Sathe said about the initiative.

Her 21 years’ experience of administering prisons has given her a simple yet significant insight. “90% of the convicts and undertrials write or talk about normal stuff. Earlier when convicts could send home post cards, they would write about mundane family matters and enquire about family members. That’s what they do now when they talk on the phone," Sathe says. She added that the coin box facility for undertrials would also help the jail administration solve the problem of mobile phones being smuggled into jails.

It is not a surprise that this change has been initiated by Sathe. She was India’s first woman superintendent of police (jail) in 1995 at Yerawada jail in Pune. She is credited with several key reforms at the prisons she has been posted at-Nashik, Nagpur, Arthur Road in Mumbai, and Yerawada. She has teamed with non-government organisations (NGOs) and human right activists to teach vocational skills to jail inmates.

At the Arthur Road jail, Sathe was jail superintendent when high-profile criminals like Abu Salem and Chhota Rajan were imprisoned. The cop, who first thinks of convicts and under-trials as human beings who went astray due to circumstances was not, however, afraid, to show these hardened criminals the tough side of her administrative skills.

But by and large, Sathe believes the disciplinary approach towards a majority of inmates is futile. “We need to develop a creative and humane environment inside jails also. As it is, the inmates are already serving their sentence. We don’t need to punish them more if we want to reform them and send them back to the society as law-abiding citizens," says Sathe.