Human Rights

Indian jails are hell holes



Rajesh and Nupur Talwar freed from the prison cell, after it couldn’t get proven that they killed their daughter Arushi. But what about hundreds and thousands of the under-trials who sit languishing in the worst possible jail conditions? Going by rough estimates almost two-thirds of the prison population are under-trials. That is, not proven guilty and with that technically innocent, yet crucial years of their lives get wasted in those hell holes. Why?

A prison cell in Goa (courtesy

A well-known lawyer had once told me that majority of the under-trials come from financially, educationally and emotionally deprived backgrounds and with find it impossible to hire good lawyers to free them from the hellish situation they have landed in. I’m even told most are not even aware of the ‘crimes’ they have been booked for, the ‘whys’ to their jailed condition, and several don’t even know how to sign their bail papers! Why? Because they are illiterate, don’t know how to sign!

Why are we, the masses, kept so far-away from these under-trials. Its one of those urgent needs of the day that we raise a cry for ‘open jails’ for these hapless. Till they are convicted they have every right to live with some level of comfort and dignity. They should have the basic freedom to move around in less stifling conditions. Mind you, they are not hardened criminals but have every chance of becoming one, if kept in those hell holes.

It gets absolutely crucial to read books written by former prisoners; laced that they are with the horrifying conditions of the hell holes. One of those must reads is journalist Iftikhar Gilani’s My Days in Prison (Penguin) which is based on the seven months of his imprisonment in Tihar Jail. He was imprisoned in New Delhi's Tihar Jail from June 9, 2002 to January 13, 2003 under the Official Secrets Act. He’d told me during the course of an interview, ‘I was called 'ghaddar’ (traitor). The bogus charges they had framed against me were enough to see me imprisoned for 14 years; they even had plans to implicate me in a POTA case.’…Also, activist Anjum Zamarud Habib’s book Prisoner No. 100 (published by Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan; Urdu and Hindi versions by Pharos Media). It is a first person account of the five long years that Anjum spent in Delhi’s Tihar jail. It is again one of those must reads for anyone who is bothered to know the condition of women prisoners and the sheer trauma, rounds of humiliation they go through …Also, Nandita Haksar's book, Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal - Patriotism In The Time of Terror (Bibliophile South Asia)….Read these and several other books written by prisoners in recent years. After you have read them, sit and compare them to the prison writings of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. You’d realize the stark difference.


In the summer of 2002, I had interviewed Georgios Georgantas, a political scientist from Greece who was then posted in Srinagar as part of the four-member team of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Under the memorandum of understanding, signed between Government of India and the ICRC in June 1995, the latter was allowed access to all detention centres and prisons in J&K; the committee mandate: to access the prevailing conditions in the detention centres and to look at the treatment meted out to the prisoners.

And with that in the background, as I’d asked him about the treatment meted out to the prisoners, he’d looked and sounded somewhat pained and upset whilst detailing some of those conditions. He had also repeatedly told me, ‘Let me first clarify that we don’t go on sudden, unannounced visits, although the visits are regular, as many as 20 or 25 in a month. In fact, its part of the memorandum of understanding that we can visit a place of detention as frequently as possible.’

With that I’d asked him - since the visits are planned so there could be ample chances of the jailors sprucing up the jailed mess? ‘Even though a two week permission is required, I don’t think its possible for the authorities to spruce up the jails for our visits because the latter can extend from one week to as long as 20 to 25 days…And though there have been allegations of custodial killings and we also have reports of arrested people being missing, but we cannot, in accordance with the MoU, investigate such allegations to establish if they are true or not…Well, we have explained to the people here what we can or can’t do so that there are no false or inflated expectations from us. We have the authority to visit interrogation centres and jails; to establish a connect between the detainees and their families, to trace the whereabouts of the arrested persons, to access the general conditions prevailing in the jails and interrogation centres. And here let me also clarify that our jurisdiction extends only to those detained because of the turmoil here and not to those arrested in common law cases. The bottom line is: we can’t interfere with the legal system.’

He had gone on to detail much more: ‘The mental health of the detainees is a major concern with us. In fact, we have an Irish doctor on the staff here and he accompanies us whenever we visit these jails and interrogation centres. We do make suggestions to the authorities and on a couple of occasions they have sent the detainees to the hospital or released them earlier than planned because of our intervention.’ Commenting further on the jailed, he told me that its the educated who find it tough to cope: ‘Generally, it is the educated to who find it difficult to cope. The rural people find it easier to cope…there are people from all the different age groups in jails. And, of course, some old men are there too in the interrogation centres.’

He had refused to comment on the instances of torture on the jailed, but did more than hint of the affect of these jail and interrogation centres visits has on his own psyche: ‘It would affect anybody. Its not a pleasant situation when people are detained.’

And in these recent years, the so-called ‘marching ahead…developed times’ jails and prisons continue to be not just lagging on varying fronts, but also shrouded in layers of horrifying haze. Eruptions once in a while, with leaked pictures of rioting and much more inside the jails. Together with those, news reports of the jailed dying, killing each other if not themselves. Several hanging themselves before the State can pass those ‘off-with-the-head’ sentences.


Communally-charged political creatures like Sangeet Som, who are crying hoarse repeating the lie that Mughal Badshah Shahjahan had hands chopped off of the artisans after they’d erected the Taj Mahal, ought to know that even today’s political rulers are passing cutting and chopping orders!

Those spared of those are dying because of malnutrition and infections and sheer poverty! Instead of dragging along distractions, Som and his mentor Yogi Adityanath ought to talk of the hundreds of babies dying in the last few months in the government-run hospitals of Uttar Pradesh. Far from erecting a monument in the memory of the dead children, they are not even talking about those deaths! The callousness of these political rulers hits!