Prison diary

James Tooley | Amey Mansabdar

In March 2014, James Tooley, a professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle, was arrested in Hyderabad for alleged irregularities in the funding of his NGO, the Educare Trust. In Comeuppance, he writes about the week or so he spent as an undertrial at the Cherlapally Central Jail, Hyderabad, and the long-winding trial proceedings he went through.

TWO GUARDS TOOK me down a corridor, turned right, then left, and right again. I didn’t take much in, just the bars on the cell, the musty smell, and the distant echoes of people shouting. They stopped in front of Cell 13 and opened the barred door. The cell was about nine square feet. On the far wall was a big, barred window at shoulder height, looking out on a space between two buildings, strewn with rubbish. The walls were covered with the spit of men down the ages—the red spit they eject while chewing betel. The floor was rough concrete and set in the high ceiling was a long white fluorescent tube light from which hung cobwebs replete with long-dead flies.

There was no furniture. The cell was completely bare apart from a piece of dirty cardboard in one corner, three piles of s**t in the middle, and s**t apparently also smeared over much of the floor. The turds were small (like a child’s, I reasoned), which made it more worrying. I pointed it out to my jailers, who shrugged at my concern and said it would be cleaned ‘after some time’ – an Indian expression which always annoys me outside, but on this occasion, I accepted it without so much as a blush. (It was not cleaned until the morning.) Meanwhile, I brushed it away from the corner which was not visible from the barred cell door using the cardboard, and there I made a pillow of my jacket. I was worried about needing to urinate at night, but it was pointed out that there was an ‘en suite’ facility; by the window there was a tiny separate room without a door. It was surprisingly clean, given the state of the cell, with a hole in the ground of the rough floor, a tap that didn’t leak, and a small, not too dirty bucket next to it.

The door was bolted behind me. I was on my own. It struck me as odd how much we learn about what to do in such circumstances, from watching films about prison. They tell you that it is possible to cope. There is no point in feeling sorry for yourself or repeating that you have done nothing wrong, and that it was all unfair. You had to pull yourself together; that was your only option.

The first thing to do, I recalled, was to carefully investigate your surroundings. I paced the cell and measured it at nearly three paces by three paces. I observed the number ‘786’ scrawled in large numbers on the wall above where I had placed my jacket. Was that the number of days that someone had spent there? No; I recalled from my visits to the Old City that one of the schools the Educare Trust had helped was called ‘786 High School’. Wasn’t it a Muslim sacred number, the number you get if you add up the numerical values of the opening phrase of the Quran?

I didn’t investigate the s**t on the floor any further. That was my cell. Standing at the barred door, I looked across the six-foot wide corridor to the larger cells opposite, with a dozen or more people in each. The Indian inmates crowded at their doors to see the foreign arrival. One young man spoke good English.

“What time do they serve food?” I asked.

“Food was two hours ago,” he said. “Nothing until cup of tea at 6am.”

“Where can I get drinking water?” I asked.

“You get water after 6am,” he said.

“When do they bring blankets?” I asked. I was feeling a bit chilly.

“You bring your own blankets,” he said.

I had to cope. I instantly put out of my mind any possible downside of everything I had just learnt. Instead, I pointed to the fan.

“Can I turn it down? I’m rather cold,” I said.

“It’s either on of off, there’s no speed control,” he said. “Best keep it on, or the mosquitos will eat you alive.”

Helpfully, one of his companions demonstrated from his side how to switch off the fan in case I changed my mind. You stuck your arm out through the bars in the door and bent in backwards to get to the fan switch further along the wall outside. I tried to do it from my side, but mistakenly I switched off my light instead. Suddenly they seemed rather nervous. This was a serious mistake, I decided; I must put it back on quickly. To universal relief, I managed to do so.

“When is lights out?” I asked finally.

The young man shook his head. There was no lights out. I paced back into my cell. I didn’t feel anything. I had to cope, I had to survive.

After a few minutes, the prisoner who spoke good English called across the corridor from his cell. The prisoners had got together a package consisting of a banana, an orange, some grapes, a half loaf of bread, some jam, a blanket and a big bottle of water. I will never forget that moment. They didn’t have to do anything for me; who was I to them? They could have simply ignored my problems; they themselves had few comforts, and fewer to spare. Instead, they responded with this deep generosity and kindness, helping me in my hour of need. Something stirred in me at that moment, which carried me through the whole experience.

Excerpted with permission

Comeuppance: My Experiences in an Indian Prison

Author: James Tooley
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 253
Price: Rs 299