By Nidhi Kinhal
It’s often easy to forget that prison inmates have basic human rights and that the State is accountable for their health, basic amenities and rehabilitation. What’s more, the inequalities and power structures of the larger society also operate within prisons, as accounts of former inmates and professionals involved in various projects tell us. According to a report, India’s women prisoner population has grown by 61 percent in the past 15 years, as compared to 33 percent increase for men.
However, infrastructure, facilities, training and policy attention do not match the growth rate. In fact, the state of women in Indian prisons is shocking. Women are confined to small spaces, often a room or two, inside male prisons. Sanitary napkins, pre- and post-natal care for pregnant women, childcare, and sanitation options are inconsistent. There’s a large gap in vocational training given to women inmates and men, according to Vijay Raghavan, the field director of Prayas, a TISS field project working on prison reform. “Because their numbers are small, prison administrators are less likely to take initiative in introducing more courses. There are more corporate tie-ups with male prisons. Options for women are scant because new initiatives require scale, and women’s jails are synonymous with lack of scalability,” says Raghavan.
The Bureau of Police Research and Development’s Model Prison Manual requires prisons to have women doctors, superintendents, separate kitchens and temporary release in case of delivery, minimum dietary needs, and other facilities, but these foundational guidelines seem like a utopia when you consider the fact that food rations are much smaller for women inmates as compared to men inmates.
Horrors like rats attacking their food, ill-treatment by prison guards, being denied information about their charges or legal options, overcrowding in the prison, gruesome sexual assault, and violence, are routine.
And this isn’t just a recent story. In 2011, some women in Tamil Nadu complained that they were stripped naked and abused verbally while in prison. In 2016, Inmates from Byculla and Nagpur prisons have said that women’s bodies are constantly in focus when a man is around, and their movement is restricted. Men and women are taught different and deeply gendered activities, and class differences make it hard for most inmates to meet their needs.
Prisons are not about being plain vindictive to the point of denying rights of inmates, but Indian prisons seem to be reproducing gender-based oppression. Only, as if it was even possible, it’s harsher behind bars.