Home >Politics >News >The white collar executive’s guide to prison

New Delhi: In recent months, it has seemed that Indian prisons are filling up with celebrities; a clutch of high-profile arrests starting with Commonwealth Games (CWG) boss Suresh Kalmadi’s in February has kept our attentions focused on life behind bars for these so-called VIP prisoners.

From former Satyam Computer Services Ltd chairman Ramalinga Raju to ex telecom minister Andimuthu Raja, around two dozen high-profile politicos, bureaucrats, corporate executives and ministers are currently lodged in various prisons across the country.

High-profile inmate: Former minister Andimuthu Raja being produced at Patiala House court in New Delhi. By Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Of course, most of the detainees are yet to be convicted and this, along with the special security status assigned to them, has until now insulated them from the worst of prison’s discomforts.

Tihar Jail officials insist that the new inmates are not being given any special privileges, but rumours of home-cooked food, extraordinary visiting privileges and superior living conditions have nevertheless seeped into newsprint from unnamed sources within the jails. If the prisoners know how to work the system, the rumours imply, such treatment could continue even after they are convicted.

With India’s investigative agencies on overdrive, a venom-fuelled anti-corruption war being waged against the government and the judiciary in activist mode, it is likely that at least some more executives will find themselves in prison. For their benefit, Mint presents a quick guide to Tihar, the prison where most executives are housed (other prisons are likely to be similar).

If you are an undertrial, pray the trial takes forever

The 2G case is being tried in its own special trial court that has met almost every day in the past six months (the exceptions were in June, when the court was in recess, early September while judge O.P. Saini pondered the framing of charges, and late September, during the Dussehra holidays. Charges are expected to be framed on Saturday).

As a result, former telecom minister Raja, Rajya Sabha member K. Kanimozhi, real estate magnates Shahid Balwa and Sanjay Chandra, Reliance Communications Ltd executives Gautam Doshi, Surendra Pipara, and Hari Nair and their fellow accused have been shuttled out of the prison’s massive gates early in the morning, not to return till late in the afternoon.

At Patiala House they have been able to relax to a certain extent with their families and friends; the atmosphere is one of muted camaraderie. Food is shared and whispered conversations are permitted during proceedings.

Aside from the daily reprieve from the prison walls, most VIP inmates are afforded a different security status from the majority of inmates, according to Sunil Kumar Gupta, law officer at Tihar. Although they are among the 74% of Tihar’s inmates who are currently under trial, they are housed in single cells. Gupta says this is for security reasons and so that they cannot intimidate other prisoners while their bail applications are pending. If convictions are made, this status could come up for review, he adds; then they might join the rest of the prison community where they will be part of a tiny minority of educated and wealthy individuals.

Once convicted, get used to work.

A typical day in Tihar starts at 6am with a wake-up call and an hour to wash in communal showers until breakfast is served in the cell. While the undertials are bussed to the courts at 8am, the convicts report to the various workshops for the day’s labour. They can choose to bake bread, weave rugs, sew uniforms, knock-up simple desks for public schools or fancier furniture for government offices. Most people are allotted jobs based on their existing professional skills—if any. A skilled worker is paid a daily wage of 99. An unskilled worker gets 70.

From 4pm until 6pm there are two hours allotted for optional classes in subjects such as moral teaching and music, or meetings with lawyers and legal aid workers. Statistics from the 2011 annual review of Tihar Jail show that 66% of its inmates have no education beyond Class X. A mere 6% have degrees and 2% have postgraduate or technical degrees and diplomas. Most prisoners come from poor backgrounds. Around 77% of inmates earned less than 50,000 per year outside prison. Over 90% earned less than a lakh.

Kumar Gupta suggests that integration into prison life only really comes after conviction. Until then, he says, the undertrials are preoccupied with honing their legal defence. “You can mix with the others only once you have an empty brain, once you are convicted and you know you will be staying." Long term high-profile inmates such as Manu Sharma or Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Santosh Singh take an active part in prison life, he says. Sharma is housed in the relatively plush surroundings of convict Jail no 2, which has its own bonsai garden, and works in the carpentry department there. Singh is a member of the jail’s cricket team.

Many of the rehabilitation activities offered by Tihar, although useful to the majority of inmates, are not aimed at individuals with a very high level of education or vocational training. It is difficult to see how a CEO or a politician would benefit from the computer training, English language or CV writing classes on offer.

Assuming that any of the VIPs currently under trial are convicted (and the unanimous opinion of the ordinary jail staff is that such an outcome is extremely unlikely, to the point of hilarity), they will find themselves in a world that is designed for people entirely unlike themselves. “Everybody is one when he is in prison," says Kumar Gupta confidently. “Whatever he is on the outside, when he comes in here he is not special." In the case of Tihar, that theory is yet to be put to the test.

Conditions are harsh, but there’s always an option

Rumours of harsh prison conditions abound. Previous detainees have disturbing stories to tell about what really goes on inside Tihar’s powder-pink walls. In his book about Tihar My Days in Prison, journalist Iftikhar Gilani painted a damning picture of “medieval" conditions inside the high security wards during his incarceration in 2002-2003 for a crime of which he was later acquitted.

Likewise, Shankar Sharma gave a detailed description of his time in Tihar to Tehelka magazine. In 2009, Sharma, the head of First Global, was arrested and denied bail for allegedly masterminding a stock market crash. He was subsequently released without charge. In the interview, Shankar described being held in the squalid general barracks—a large hall for 50 people. He said that for the first four days he was in shock but that he quickly learned coping mechanisms including paying off the guard to increase his meeting time with lawyers and other visitors, and buying a hot bath in the deputy superintendent’s bathroom for 200. Sharma declined to be interviewed for this story.

But even if extra comforts can be arranged for a price, the high-profile inmate lives a particularly isolated existence, according to Dr Anju Gupta, who worked as a Tihar Jail psychologist for two-and-a-half years. “They tend not to mix with other people," she said. “They eat in their cells. They feel embarrassed and shy, and when they go from their cells to the gates for court they are surrounded by prison security. We cannot put them among the rest of the people, so they are usually separated in single cells."

Although Dr Gupta says that she has never been visited by a VIP for counselling services (“They don’t ask to come. They don’t want to make any fuss, so they keep themselves to themselves"), she notices that first-time offenders have different experiences of incarceration. “Those who are coming to jail for the first time, from good social backgrounds, who are socially integrated people, will often be aloof, isolated. They are in shock; often, they are crying. It’s an entirely unexpected thing for them to be in jail," she says.

Prison officials are trained to single these inmates out for close observation, offering daily counselling or beds in the inpatient department of the psychiatry unit in Tihar. “After 10-15 days, they get a little adjusted and we try to involve them in activities to divert their attention and avoid acute stress reactions which may lead to depression," says Dr Gupta.

The ‘prison coaching’ industry

In the last decade, the US has also seen a spate of powerful businessmen stand trial for financial scams such as those uncovered at Enron and Tyco in 2001 and 2002. In 2009, Bernard Madoff became the world’s most infamous white-collar criminal when his Ponzi scheme was discovered and he was sentenced to 150 years—the maximum allowed—in a jail in North Carolina. It was rumoured at the time that before he went to jail he paid a consultant to advise him on how to cope with life on the inside.

In response to the perceived trend, a small but well publicized industry of “prison coaches" has sprung up, advertising their services to rich businessmen or celebrities who are facing jail sentences and are terrified at the prospect. These companies, with names such as Dr Prison, Wall Street Prison Coaches and Federal Prison Consultant Services, offer to prepare nervous white-collar criminals for jail, imparting physical training and valuable advice about how to survive.

“I tapped into something no one else was into in 2002," says Steve Oberfest on his website,, which charges fees of up to $20,000 for a complete course. “By the time I receive a client, they know I am their last step to hell." Advertising their pre/post sentencing pack—a $30 manual for prospective prisoners—National Prison Coach says “you need to be prepared —physically, mentally and emotionally for a journey you never thought you would experience."

A coach’s tips

Get physically fit: Steve Oberfest teaches fitness classes, including how to work out using cell furniture, and self defence, in case another inmate attacks.

Know the slang: In the US, prison slang has become a way of separating the hardened inmates from the newcomers.

Attach yourself to a group/ find friends: Make alliances with other inmates who can show you the ropes and protect you. Safety in numbers.

Keep a low profile: “Some of these white collar criminals may be highly educated but they have no respect for their fellow men," says Oberfest. Fights break out over the smallest perceived slight or insult.

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