Behind Bars

Indian prisons are giving better facilities to inmates. But, is it the whole story?

Thane Jail Pattern of life: The tailoring unit at Thane Central Prison | Janak Bhat

Ward 1 of Jail 4 in Tihar, Delhi, could have been the play area of a busy housing colony in the evening. Except that these are not children back from school. They are prisoners greedily gulping the free air, before they are herded back into the barracks.

We even run a beauty parlour called Phoenix in Kannur. It is interesting to see lay people coming there to get their hair cut and have their beards shaved by hardened criminals. —R. Sreelekha director general of prisons and correctional services, Kerala
An official hanging is a big deal, but the 1,500 or so people who die in prisons every year go unmourned. —Murali Karnam member of the Human Rights Law Network
The food that we got was so bad that we used to smuggle in masala to make it edible. - A former prisoner from Yerawada jail, Pune

There are eight barracks in the ward that house 500 inmates. They are arranged on three sides of a rectangular courtyard. Near the ward is a small stone mandir, strewn with stamped and flattened petals. In the middle of the courtyard is a raised pavilion. When we walk in, led by the superintendent of the prison Rajesh Chauhan, three plastic chairs are immediately placed on the pavilion. I see inmates touching Chauhan’s feet for blessings. The others file obediently into the courtyard and squat down, their dirty white shirts flapping in the wind.

“Let’s have some entertainment,” says Chauhan. “What shall it be? Some singing, perhaps?”

There is a murmuring among the prisoners, and then, a man comes up on the pavilion and renders a Hindi song in a wavering voice.

I am struck by the air of servility among the prisoners. As Chauhan passes by, there is an almost pleading look in their eyes, as though craving a nod of acknowledgment or a word of appreciation. I notice this at the art school of the jail, too, which was inaugurated in August last year. A line of prisoners is sitting outside the school drawing charcoal portraits. When we pass them, they excitedly wave their books at us, inviting us to take a look at the drawings.

“I personally visit and counsel the prisoners every day,” says Chauhan. “The most important way to reform them is to patiently listen to them.”

The school itself is state of the art, with air-conditioned interiors and a well-lit gallery with oil paintings and sculptures made by the prisoners. As a prison official told me, those who are destructive outside are incredibly creative inside. Other than the barracks, Tihar’s Jail 4 could have been a resort, with wide alleys, murals, herb gardens, fountains, a well-stocked library, yoga centre and air-conditioned vipassana room.

Not all of Tihar’s nine jails, that house around 15,000 prisoners, are as posh as Jail 4. Jail 3, for example, is pervaded with the stench of urine, and the paint is peeling off the walls. This is where the hospital, the drug de-addiction and the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) centres are. IGNOU has introduced around 27 one-year diploma and three-year degree courses for prisoners. They can learn anything from motorcycle repairing to computer application and business administration.

Style quotient: A fashion show by inmates held at Tihar jail. Style quotient: A fashion show by inmates held at Tihar jail.

“Thousands of convicts and undertrials have enrolled for IGNOU courses,” says Ajay Kashyap, director general of Tihar. “We have many prisoners pursuing MBAs and Mas.”

Tihar is one of the more technologically advanced prison complexes in the country. “We have gone completely cashless,” says Kashyap. “Each inmate has an account which he can access through a smart card. The system of inmates meeting visitors, too, has been automated. Families can make an online appointment to meet their loved ones in prison.”

Like Tihar, prisons in Telangana, too, have introduced many reforms. As a former prisoner told me, prisons in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are heaven, and those in Chhattisgarh are hell. All the rest fall in between. Telangana is one of the few states in India which does not have overcrowded prisons. There are around 5,500 prisoners in 50 prisons (including the Borstal school for adolescent offenders and the prisoners’ agricultural colony), whereas there is space for nearly 1,200 more. There are high-tech visitor lounges at the central prisons of Cherlapally, Warangal and Hyderabad. New guest houses and classrooms were constructed two years ago. There is an ayurvedic village and 14 petrol pumps run by the prison department. Two registers are maintained in every prison—one for noting down prisoners’ grievances, and another for providing jobs to released prisoners. Cultural programmes are conducted on the fourth Sunday of every month.

“There is a committee in charge of every prison department, whether it be health or security,” says M. Sampath, a prison official and principal of the State Institute of Corruption Administration (SICA), Telangana. “Landscaping in the prisons of the state is my responsibility. We have employed a landscape artist. My team goes to prisons in other states and gives suggestions on how to improve landscaping.”

Although not much landscaping has been done in the central prisons of Kerala, the historic ones like Poojappura in Thiruvananthapuram have a distinctness about them. The architecture of the Poojappura prison is called pan-optical. Within the walls, the nine acres are laid out around a three-storied central tower. From the top of the tower, one can see the entire prison. In the 60 acres outside the walls, there are agricultural fields, residential quarters of the staff, laundry shed, chappati unit, Ganapathi temple and two ponds.

Around the tower, there are six blocks (A to F). The F block is the kitchen block. The kitchen starts functioning at midnight, with 40 prisoners in a shift. The officer who takes me around introduces me to the main chef—a hefty prisoner in a torn baniyan and mundu. The ladle he is holding looks incredibly small in his meaty hands. The kitchen itself is a dark and dreary room, dominated by the large barrels of rice in the middle.

The feel good factor: Two inmates who work as massage therapists at the Ayurvedic Village run by Prisons Department, Telangana | Shanthan Reddy The feel good factor: Two inmates who work as massage therapists at the Ayurvedic Village run by Prisons Department, Telangana | Shanthan Reddy

There are separate blocks for the mentally ill and HIV positive prisoners, of whom there are around 80. Most of the blocks have dormitories; a few have cells, each meant to house four to five prisoners. The blocks were built to hold around 700 prisoners. On the day of my visit, there were 1,300 prisoners inside. Each prisoner is allowed Rs 800 a month to buy from the canteen plum cakes, chips, tea, dried fruits and packed foods. Every convicted prisoner must work in the carpentry, tailoring, weaving, printing, soap making or book-binding units. They are paid up to Rs 110 per day as wages. Their earnings go into three accounts—the canteen account, from which they can buy items; the personal cash property (PCP) account, which has money that was on them when they were arrested or when they come back from parole, and also what their family sends them by money order; and the release account, which they can encash on their release.

“Recently, we distributed coats among the women and the elderly prisoners,” says R. Sreelekha, director general of prisons and correctional services, Kerala. “I also want to provide free footwear to the inmates. Currently, they have to buy them from the canteen.”

She highlights the organic farms, toy-making units, and bakeries run by the prison department. “We even run a beauty parlour called Phoenix in Kannur,” she says. “It is interesting to see lay people coming there to get their hair cut and to have their beards shaved by hardened criminals.”


“Think of your family,” thunders J.P. Guruji, a Jain guru and motivational speaker. We’re listening to him delivering a talk at the Thane Central Jail in Mumbai. “Think of your wife. She is crying her heart out praying for you. And you? You should cry for your god. CRY FOR YOUR GOD.” He is a powerful speaker and there is enthusiastic applause from the prisoners.

It is stiflingly hot in the hall, with more than 150 prisoners crammed inside, and I am relieved to step out after the talk. A little way ahead, there is a circular building with a blue door. I am told it is the anda cell, in which terror suspects and hardcore criminals are lodged. It is window-less and with little ventilation. As I go near to get a closer look, I’m told to hurry up. “The prisoners will be out [from the hall] any minute,” our guide tells me. “You never know when they turn violent.”

When I ask Nitin Wayachal, the superintendent of the prison, about fights that happen inside, he says there are plenty. “You cannot prevent fights between the members of a family when they live in one house,” he says. “How easy, then, do you think it is to prevent it among hardened criminals?”

Prison officials try to evade this problem by keeping the prisoners occupied and organising talks, cultural programmes and leisure activities for them. There are music bands by the prisoners like the Freedom Melody music band of Viyyur Central Prison in Kerala, which also performs skits, acrobatic dance, comedy dance and mimicry. There are 62 members in the band now, with 12 musicians and 23 dancers. They have even performed outside the prison, in government rehabilitation centres and old age homes.

Green thumb: Prisoners tending brinjal at the Thane Central Jail | Janak Bhat Green thumb: Prisoners tending brinjal at the Thane Central Jail | Janak Bhat

Dance performances, plays and sports events are held regularly inside prisons. They have music contests like the Tihar Idol in Tihar, that was modelled after the television show Indian Idol.

“I found the inmates to be very emotional,” says Bela Gupta, associate professor at Pearl Academy, which opened a fashion lab in Tihar last year, teaching women inmates basic skills of stitching, pattern-making, design and construction. “They are cut off from the outside world, so they have an intense hunger to talk to someone and show some affection. They are quite loving.”

“Prisoners show me a kind of respect that ordinary people don’t,” says Nipin Niravath, a mentalist who has performed in three prisons in Kerala in the last three years. He weaves his act around the fictional reopening of a murder case that happened 144 years ago. The witnesses in the case are the prisoners themselves. He enters their psyche and manipulates their emotions until the show culminates in a rousing climax. “The rhythm of the story lulls them into a hypnotic state in which I can access their subconscious minds,” he says.


Prison conditions in India is a subject that has been brought up several times by the judiciary. Recently, a London court had demanded a video of the prison cell in Arthur Road Jail where liquor baron Vijay Mallya would be incarcerated, after his lawyers argued that these cells are unsafe. On August 8, the Supreme Court said it would constitute a committee under the chairmanship of a retired judge to look into prison conditions.

Murali Karnam, a member of the Human Rights Law Network, a collective of Indian lawyers and social activists, refers to a Supreme Court judgment of September last year, when it asked all state governments to pay suitable compensation to the families of those who died unnatural deaths in prisons since 2012. According to the report filed by the Andhra Pradesh government, only 19 people have died unnatural deaths in the five years from 2012 to 2017. “Interestingly,” says Karnam, “according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 23 people died in the state in just three years from 2012 to 2015.” Even among the 19 deaths reported, only three families were given compensation; that too, a pittance of Rs 1 lakh.

As Karnam points out, an official hanging is a big deal, but the 1,500 or so people who die in prisons every year go unmourned. “Somewhere, civil society feels that if a person is accused of being a criminal, then he doesn’t deserve much attention if he dies in prison,” he says.

Deaths in prison are not just because of callousness of prison officials, Karnam says. The structure of prisons is such that if a prisoner gets a heart attack inside prison, he cannot be taken to a hospital within the ‘golden hour’, when there is highest likelihood that prompt medical care can prevent death. Before the barrack can be opened, the message has to be passed on to the superintendent. He has to arrange for an ambulance to be brought to the prison. Most prisons are located on the outskirts of the city, 20km or 30km away. (They used to be centrally located, but when the city expanded, the land became prime property and prisons were moved to the city’s fringes, so that the land need not be ‘wasted’ on housing prisoners.) By the time the patient reaches the hospital, chances are that it would be too late to save him.

A 2015 report on life in the 58 prisons of Bihar found that, in these prisons, there was a severe shortage of drinking water, fans and toilets. Undertrial prisoners were made to work in prison kitchens without pay. When taken to the court for hearings, the prisoners were often not produced before magistrates. Instead, they were kept in court lockup and brought back to the prisons at the end of the day. The mulakati system—or the time when family members can meet prisoners—was found to be terrible. The visitors stand outside a wall which is around seven feet away from the window by which the prisoner stands. Around 20 prisoners talk at the same time to 25 to 30 members of their families. They must shout to be heard and it is utter chaos, with each of them trying to elbow out the other to get a better peek from the window.

Many of the prisoners did not know whether they had lawyers or not. “The [government] lawyers are paid a pittance of 0700 to 0800 for an entire trial,” says Anshu Raj Singh, a lawyer and one of the researchers of the report. “No lawyer is really interested [in representing a poor prisoner].”

Such poor conditions lead to deterioration of prisoners’ mental health. An alarmingly high percentage of them suffer from depression and other mental ailments. In Tihar, around 50 per cent are victims of “severe psychological problems”, Kashyap, DG of Tihar, tells me. He admits there is a shortage of psychiatrists to treat them—there are only three for the 15,000 prisoners—but says they are in the process of getting 49 clinical psychologists. “All the established psychiatrists prefer to work in specialised hospitals,” he says. “We encourage graduate and post-graduate students of clinical psychology to do an internship here. We want to make it part of their curriculum. We are also reaching out to NGOs to give counselling to the inmates. And, trying to amend the recruitment process for warders and matrons, who are in closest contact with the inmates, so that they are sensitised to spot symptoms of mental problems.”

Cecilia Davies, a social worker who has been working with women inmates of a jail in Tumkur, Karnataka, says that not enough is being done to rebuild an inmate inside Indian prisons. These inmates have lost their freedom and are cut off from their families. They get no respect or dignity inside jail. They are completely broken over a period. Often, after years inside a prison, they lose their connect with the outside world. She refers to an elderly man who was released after 14 years in prison. He was so used to the regimented style of living inside prison that he got disoriented and confused outside. “He did not know how to get to the fourth floor of his building,” she says. “His entire sense of direction was skewed.”

States like Kerala have no provision for the treatment of inmates’ mental problems. What they have are welfare officers who offer counselling and are responsible for arranging legal aid, parole and meetings with relatives. Even they are too few for the bulk of the prisoners. In Viyyur, for example, there are only two welfare officers for 800 inmates. Most prisons are severely understaffed. There are only 2,500 prison officers in Kerala to take care of around 8,000 prisoners. Lack of funding to buy new ambulances, jeeps and for other needs is another problem. “The food alone costs us 05 crore a year,” says Sreelekha, director general of prisons, Kerala. “We are generating an income of about 010 crore for the government [through our various industries]. At least 20 per cent of this should be deposited in a welfare fund for prisoners. Currently, even for our smallest needs, we have to depend on the government treasury.”

(Plans for this, she says, are on the anvil, with the finance minister of Kerala recently announcing that 50 per cent of income generated by prisons can be put in such a fund from the next financial year.)

Prison officials say that their job is a really tough one. They must remain constantly vigilant, and it is mentally exhausting to deal with prisoners 24 hours a day. “If we are offered even the job of a peon, some of us prefer it to working here,” says one of them. Many prisoners are drug addicts and they get violent when they don’t get it regularly, Wayachal, the superintendent of the Thane jail, tells me. “Often, we can’t prevent them from smuggling it inside,” he says. “Sometimes they shove it up their rears. Other times, they put it inside condoms and swallow them. Once inside, they drink soap water to vomit out the condoms. They do the same with mobile phones, after dismantling them. We cannot get X-ray machines or do nude searches because it is considered a human right violation.”

He denies that they give preferential treatment to the rich and powerful prisoners, allow them to get mobile phones and special food, and help make their stay a comfortable one. “We allow a special tiffin only to [arrested MLA] Ramesh Kadam; that, too, on court order,” he says. “Not even Iqbal Kaskar [the brother of mafia don Dawood Ibrahim, who is lodged in the jail] can have it. Besides, the food we provide is so good, no prisoner will need to ask for a special tiffin.”

The prisoners, however, have a different tale to tell.


“On my first day in prison, I was given two chappatis and two glasses of what looked like mud and water,” says Bellala Padma, a political prisoner whom I met in Telangana the day after she was released from a prison in Chhattisgarh. “Someone told me it was dal. You would never be able to identify the curries based on what they looked or tasted like. We used to identify them based on the menu.”

“There were five of us crammed into a tiny cell,” she says. “There was no space for any of us to move. Patients with tuberculosis, AIDS and mental illnesses were all clubbed together. We could go out for five hours a day to meet our daily needs—wash clothes, eat…. The rest of the time, we were inside the cell. Imagine being stuck in that space for 19 hours a day.”

A former prisoner I met outside Yerawada Central Jail in Pune had a similar tale to tell. “The food that we got was so bad that we used to smuggle in masala to make it edible,” says the man, who was out on bail and did not want to be named. He is big-built with shifty eyes.

As we speak, a small crowd gathers around us. We are told that they are waiting for the release of a man from their community who was accused of murder, but the charge did not stick. “If we sent a money order of Rs 1,000, only Rs 500 would reach him,” says a wiry man named Sirje Rao Devkar, who is the brother of the prisoner about to be released. “The rest would be pocketed by the officers. I had to spend Rs 10 lakh in two years to get my brother released. Rs 7 lakh went to advocates, and the rest to prison officials. Whenever he had a hearing in court, he had to pay Rs 20,000 just to be taken there.”

There is a sudden lurch towards the gate. The released prisoner is coming out. I crane my neck to get a better view. All I can see is a bobbing head of copper-coloured hair before he is shuffled into a van parked opposite. On the long drive back to Mumbai, I reflect on what U.T. Pawar, the superintendent of Yerawada, told me when I went to see him.

“Overcrowding is the only problem we face in Yerawada.”

He said it in the flat tone of someone who did not believe what he said. Nor expected me to.