“Aisa lagta hai kabr mein aa gaye hain, na koi awaaz bahar ja sakti hai, na koi awaaz andar aa sakti hai” (It feels like we’ve entered a tomb, no one can hear us and we can’t hear person) – a piercing observation made by one of our fellow inmates last year, when we were living through the second deadly wave of the pandemic inside the Tihar women’s prison, prison n°6. With the third wave now unfolding, urgent attention must be paid to the dire conditions in which one of this country’s most neglected groups survives – India’s prison population. The latest data from the NCRB tells us that 76% of prisoners are awaiting trial, with a strong overrepresentation of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and other minority communities among those awaiting trial and convicts.
The days of incarceration when the second wave devastated lives outside and inside, its pain and horror, continue to haunt us. Tihar Women’s Prison has witnessed a massive spread of the virus. We watched helplessly as cases emerged from one overcrowded ward after another. We mourned the deaths of our fellow inmates far from home. We waited with restless anxiety for the next day’s five-minute phone call to find out what news he might bring of our loved ones outside. We began to face the fear of our own death inside this miserable place. Upon contracting the virus, a prisoner would be transferred to the “Corona Ward”, while the barracks where the case was detected would become a “quarantine” barracks for the next 14 days where the inmates inside were locked down 24 hours a day. and 7 days a week. As cases continued to emerge from every barracks, most of us lived in a state of permanent quarantine. We spent many heartbreaking days and nights listening to the heartbreaking cries of little children when their barracks had just been quarantined.
Our barracks mate and co-defendant, Gulfisha, was suffering from high fever, severe headaches and body aches, insomnia and loss of appetite. Identified as “symptomatic”, she was placed in a tiny suffocating cell with two other inmates. His Covid was never detected because no RTPCR tests were available – only a limited number of antigen tests were in progress. Test kits were scarce, as well as all other equipment such as disinfectants, masks, gloves, PPE suits. Barracks full of symptomatic patients received a generous supply of paracetamols, cetirizine, cough syrups and various other drugs through untrained inmates who had to work as paramedics in the absence of the required number of trained medical personnel.
During the first days of the epidemic, access to mulaqaats/phone calls/letters/newspapers was interrupted. Imagine contracting the virus, being pushed into an overcrowded sick barracks or solitary cell all alone, receiving negligible medical care and allowing no contact with family or friends at a time when you most desperately need it. It was only after the intervention of the Delhi High Court that some of these facilities resumed inside the prison and vaccination of inmates was undertaken. Family and legal mulaqaats in prison have remained suspended for most of the past two years. Even as the e-mulaqaats facility was instituted in August 2020, the families of most inmates do not have smartphones or digital knowledge to access it. Moreover, as a result of the courts going online and the interruption of visits by judges or government bodies during the pandemic, the impunity that rests in the hands of the prison administration has been reinforced. The minimum redress mechanisms available to prisoners in the event of discrimination and abuse by prison staff have therefore ceased to exist.
Indian prisons have always been overcrowded. In Delhi for example, against a sanctioned prison population of 10,024, the three prisons – Tihar, Mandoli and Rohini – have around 19,000 to 20,000 prisoners. The infrastructure and facilities simply do not exist inside prisons to be able to manage and mitigate a pandemic of this magnitude. The Supreme Court of India has taken cognizance suo motu of this matter and on March 23, 2020 issued Guidelines for State/UT Formation of High Level Committees (HPCs) for Prison Decongestion. However, the criteria decided by the HPCs of the various states for the provisional release of prisoners, instead of being based on the fundamental principle of the equality of all human life, create an arbitrary categorization of prisoners who deserve to live, based on the nature/severity of the offence, the number of years of sentence but not factors such as age, health, co-morbidities and other vulnerabilities. So, although he is at “high risk” for mortality, because a sub-trial/convict may be charged under certain laws like UAPA, sedition, NDPS or is a foreigner, he does not is not entitled to provisional parole. The online operation of the courts meant that trials could not begin or remained suspended, further extending incarceration for sub-trials charged under these articles.
These unfair criteria in granting bail are the reason why Father Stan Swamy was not released on bail last year and died in custody, and GN Saibaba, a former University professor from Delhi 90% disabled, continues to be incarcerated after contracting Covid again in Nagpur prison. These are the names we know, but our prisons are filled with hundreds of these under-trials and convicts who are most at risk from the virus but have been denied access to any form of interim relief. Like Elsie, who came from Bolivia and lived in our parish. Despite her co-morbidities, as a foreigner and NDPS sub-trial, she was ineligible for HPC bail criteria and died in prison, thousands of miles away from her two grandchildren whom she had. can’t wait to see the faces. She was buried on the prison premises because her family did not have the resources to recover her body. Even in death there was no freedom.
In these times of suffering and despair caused by the pandemic, it is imperative that the Indian justice system and the state guarantee the right to life of the people they continue to detain and do not allow prisons to become cemeteries of rights. human beings and dignity. .
Narwal is pursuing a PhD in Modern History and Kalita is pursuing an MPhil in Women’s Studies from JNU. Both are Pinjra Tod activists and spent nearly 13 months in Tihar No. 6 Prison, charged under the UAPA and various other provisions.