The Byculla women’s prison complex has several high profile prisoners apart from the actor, including Shoma Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj and Indrani Mukherjea
On 11 September, a Mumbai court denied bail to actor Rhea Chakraborty, arrested over drugs charges related to the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case. Soon after, the police convoy took her to Byculla women’s jail for a 14-day judicial custody. An NDTV report later that day said the actor was allotted a single cell, minus a bed or ceiling fan. The isolation, the channel quoted unidentified sources saying, was for “security reasons".
Chakraborty isn’t the only high-profile prisoner lodged in Byculla jail. Others include activist Shoma Sen and Sudha Bharadwaj—both arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon violence case, and Indrani Mukherjea, prime accused in the Sheena Bora murder case. Despite the opacity around India’s custody and incarceration system, reports over the years on the condition inside paint a poor picture of the prison.
Compared to other jails in Maharashtra, Byculla jail is among the largest and two of the women’s-only facilities. “Most of its prisoners include those accused of a range of offences like theft, cheating, crimes against women cases, spousal violence and gang-related offences," says Vijay Raghavan, professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), who leads Prayas, a TISS initiative promoting social work in criminal justice. “Mostly, they have poor family support. Many develop mental health issues due to social isolation and losing touch with their children."
Overcrowding is another problem. The prison has a capacity of 262 prisoners— both convicts and undertrials. Cells and barracks are often shared by dozens of prisoners, making social distancing near-impossible. The situation exacerbated in May 2020, when one of the prisoners tested positive for covid-19. The jail authorities swung into action and tested each prisoner, but that was hardly an insurance against a second outbreak.
“On 25 May, then Inspector General of Prisons in Maharashtra Sunil Ramanand had said in an official affidavit that the prison population had to be reduced to a third of its capacity to effectively manage covid-19," says advocate Payoshi Roy, who represents one of the inmates lodged inside the prison. “The Byculla jail has an official count of 259 inmates now. The prison authorities claim that there’s been no spread of the virus, which we think is a really tall claim."
Maisha, daughter of Sudha Bharadwaj, says the conditions inside leaves elderly inmates like her mother very vulnerable. “My mother suffers from diabetes and heart disease," she says. “When I speak to her, she tells me she lives in a barrack with 35 other prisoners. There is no attempt at social distancing. Most are only using masks."
Koel Sen, daughter of Shoma Sen, says her mother, too, is housed in a barrack with 40 others. “The conditions aren’t extremely sanitized and safe," she says. “But the prison authorities claim they’re doing this to keep the senior citizens safe, that they’re checking temperature and taking extra care."
Maisha says her mother can’t speak to her freely—there’s always someone monitoring their phone or video calls. “And when I try to reach her, the jail authorities are quite rude. They’ll say, don’t call us, she’ll (Sudha) call you. But she can’t do it as often," Maisha adds.
Speaking of the high-handedness typical of the prison-system in India, Raghavan explains, “Women’s prisons traditionally suffer from lack of facilities because they don’t constitute a significant number of the total prison population."
According to the 2018 report Women in Prisons published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, women constitute 4.3% of the prison population in India, a total of 17,834 individuals.
“Most prisons are largely managed by male staff," says Raghavan. “There’s female staff—you may have one or two lady jailers and few female guards, for example. But most staff are lower down the prison hierarchy. Their ability to highlight the inmates’ issues is limited. This reflects in the treatment of the prisoners: they are treated at best in a patronizing manner, not as women with needs, some of which are the same as men, like legal aid, and some which may be different from men, like the need for gynecological treatment or issues related to care and support of their children."
The last time Byculla women’s jail came under spotlight was in 2017, after an inmate, Manjula Shetye, was killed. A case of custodial death was registered against six prison staffers. In an interview with Mumbai Mirror the next year, Sushma Ramteke, a former inmate, recalled, “The golden rule at the Byculla jail is, keep your mouth shut. From the time you’re woken at 5am till the time you sleep, say nothing and you’ll be fine."
It’s unclear if things have improved since. Given the difficulty in accessing the goings-on inside the prison, it’s a struggle to piece together the real picture. Chakraborty’s incarceration might have drawn the spotlight to the conditions within but overall, as Raghavan says, “it is a question of under-resourced and neglected institutions."
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