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Dear Vijay Mallya, Arthur Road Jail Won’t Give You VIP Treatment

Indian prisons have come under the scanner, after a UK court asked for proof of interiors of Arthur Road Jail.

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Prisons in India have come under the scanner, after a UK court asked for proof of the living conditions in the Mumbai Central Prison, popularly known as the Arthur Road Jail, which is to house Vijay Mallya.

Being a state subject, there is no uniformity in the condition of prisons in the country, yet broadly, they stand ignored by the administration except when there is a major incident like a jail break, a shoot out etc. Starved of funds and leadership, the condition of Indian prisons is pitiable to say the least.

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Why Some Jails are Overcrowded

At the subdivision level and district level, prisons house undertrials. These are generally near the courts to facilitate the escorting of prisoners for hearings. ‘Bail and not jail’ being the ethos of Indian jurisprudence, most prisoners are bailed out except in serious cases like murder and rape. Central prisons are for convicts, and Arthur Road Jail is the one for Mumbai. Prisoners are brought to central prisons after they are convicted by the courts. They are imparted various skills in the hope of their ‘reformation and rehabilitation’.

But this is not so in the case of Arthur Road Jail although it is a central prison; it mostly houses undertrials.

There are about 2,500 prisoners at any given time as against its capacity of about 1,000. The reason being its proximity to the Mumbai courts. Taloja Central Prison, that was constructed to take off the load from Arthur Road, is about 45 kilometers away, and the journey time between Taloja and the Mumbai courts is about one and a half hour. The police find it very difficult to provide escorts to prisoners from Taloja to the Mumbai courts. Undertrials thus prefer to remain in Arthur Road Jail, and it suits the prison administration too.

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The Inside of a Jail

Prisons are mostly run by the staff and prisoners together. Work by undertrials is optional in India, but convicts are expected to work as per the Prison Manual. They earn a stipend while doing various odd jobs around the prions for example, cleaning, cooking, gardening. Most central prisons have skill inputs, and thus the prisoners are busy engaged in activities ranging from carpentry to baking. Arthur Road Jail, having the maximum number of under trials, does not have skill inputs. Here, a few convicts and a number of undertrials carry out day-to-day work like cleaning barracks and open spaces, cleaning toilets, cooking. They are paid for these tasks as per the government mandate.

Arthur Road Jail, at different times, has seen heavy weights like former Deputy Chief Minister, Maharashtra, Chhagan Bhujbal; Bollywood actors like Sanjay Dutt, and business tycoons like Peter Mukerjea and his wife Indrani.

No court in India has asked for photographs of prisons, and have rarely questioned the administration about their maintenance and condition. In fact, the prison administration in most states is understaffed and overworked, while prisons are overcrowded.

The facilities are too basic, and even hygiene is a serious issue. Skin and pulmonary infections are common; medical facilities are average to poor. ‘Reformation and rehabilitation’ is mostly just on paper.

Very few prisons have probation officers for looking into prisoners’ family issues and follow-ups after their release. Corruption here, like in any other government department, is a serious concern. Worse still, interaction with academics and NGOs is rarely encouraged.

Despite these snags, violence in Indian prisons is rare. Surprisingly, there is a strong feeling of community in central prisons, as the prisoners know that they have to live together for a long period.

Festivals are celebrated with enthusiasm, with most prisoners participating, irrespective of caste, and religion. The atmosphere in most Indian prisons is simple, rustic and cordial.

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Vijay Mallya is Just Another Undertrial

Sometimes the central government does dole out funds for prison modernisation, new construction, training etc. But this needs to be regular and systematic. Most prison staff have been sensitized to the human rights of prisoners. Though starved of funds and infrastructure, they do their best to keep prisons clean, and try to run them smoothly.

Thus, the UK court can be told that the facilities at Arthur Road are very basic, and Vijay Mallya, having been brought up in India, cannot feign ignorance. Despite his wealth, education and entrepreneurial skills he didn’t contribute much to the country’s development. It’s now time for him to reap what he has sown. Barrack No 12 at the Arthur Road Jail, is waiting for an undertrial — not a VIP.

(The writer retired as the Director General Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD). She was Head, Prison Department, Maharashtra, for over three years. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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