'Take Out The Insects From Your Food And Eat It’: Women Political Prisoners Recount Jail Horror Stories
'Take Out The Insects From Your Food And Eat It’: Women Political Prisoners Recount Jail Horror Stories

For Soni Sori, while her custody in the police station itself was riddled with torture and sexual harassment, her time in the jail was also a harrowing experience. She wouldn’t eat in her initial days inside. One of her fellow inmates advised her, “If you want to stay alive, you better eat. Take out the insects from your food and eat it. This is what you get and that is how we have survived, for the past several years.” And she did the same, took aside all the insects and ate her food.

The Jury members listening to the testimonies of women. From left to right: Flavia Agnes, Kalpana Sharma and Muniza Khan.

On March 11, Citizens for Peace and Justice (CJP) in association with the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) organised a public hearing titled ‘Qaid ke Pare’ (Beyond being confined) at the Marathi Patrakar Sangh in Mumbai. It was aimed to bring forward the experiences and issues of women prisoners and the shortcomings of the prison system. Women who testified in person included Roma Malik, forest rights activist and general secretary of AIUFWP, Sokalo Gond, Kismatiya Gond and Rajkumari Bhuiya, women leaders from Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh fighting for their land rights with AIUFWP and Rashminara Begum, who was wrongly and inhumanly incarcerated in the Assam’s detention camps for foreigners.

Roma on the left, from All India Union of Forest Working People and Teesta Setalvad on the right, from Citizens for Peace and Justice.

There were also video testimonies from Soni Sori, tribal rights activist and teacher from Bastar, and of Richa Singh and Pooja Shukla, both student activists from Uttar Pradesh. These were presented in front of the jury comprising of Flavia Agnes, a prominent women’s rights lawyer, Kalpana Sharma, a senior journalist, Muniza Khan, an academic and social scientist from Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and Farhana Shah, a senior criminal defence lawyer.   

Women Jails Plagued With Overcrowding, Poor Food And Hygiene

Roma, sharing her experience.

“When we were arrested and sent to jail, the barrack which could house 30 women had close to 100 inmates. There was no space to eat, sleep or move around,” recounted Roma Malik, about the time when she and her sathis Sukalo and Rajkumari were taken to Mirzapur jail in 2015, on many false charges. Lack of space is a major issue, as was reiterated by women in many of their testimonies.

Inmates, who were Dalits, would be made to sleep near the toilets, and they would also be made to clean them

Women constitute 4.3 % of the total persons in jail, which is a total number of 17,834 women until 2015, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. Over the past 15 years, a number of women in jails have seen an increasing trend with them constituting 3.3 % of all prisoners in 2000. In spite of this, of the total of 1401 jails in the country, only 18 jails are exclusively for women. This means that a majority of women inmates are housed in the smaller women’s enclosures of general prisons. The Model Prison Manual, brought in by the Ministry of Home Affairs which guarantee rights for prisoners state that there must at least be one women’s jail in every state.

Overcrowding for women has pronounced effects. It translates into having lesser toilets, bathrooms and space to rest and sleep. Many recounted of women sleeping on the floor and near the toilets. “Inmates, who were Dalits, would be made to sleep near the toilets, and they would also be made to clean them,” said Pooja Shukla in her testimony. The Kokrajhar detention camp has 2 bathroom and toilets and 4 taps of drinking water to be shared by 100 women, according to the short documentary film made by the CJP team which was screened. Detention camps are spaces for detaining people who are declared as foreigners by the Foreigner’s Tribunal in Assam.

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“I didn’t eat the food for 5 months when I was in jail,” said Sukalo Gond, who was helped with fruits and other food by the Sanghatan during her arrest in 2015. “The food was terrible, it was not only insufficient but rotten too,” she added. Soni Sori also stated the food being of extremely poor quality and insufficient. She and her inmates protested with a hunger strike to know and receive the stated quantity of food they were entitled to, and for ensuring other rights.

No Attention To Physical Or Mental Health

On the left, Zamser Ali, from Citizens for Peace and Justice, working in Assam. On the right, Rashminara Begum with her daughter Nazifa Yasmin.

Nazifa Yasmin was born to Rashminara Begum while she was in the detention camp. She was incarcerated for being a ‘D-voter’ or doubtful voter while she was 3 months pregnant. “I couldn’t get proper food and sleep, the conditions were very unhealthy. I had even started to feel depressed,” she said.

Not many children are as fortunate to live as Nazifa. Sukalo narrated the story of her fellow inmate who had to give birth to her son in the bathroom of the jail, in spite of repeatedly asking the jail staff to be taken to the hospital. She was finally taken after the birth of her son but he died on the way.

Harassing and beating of women in jails for protesting or asking for their rights was something that came up in everybody’s accounts.

These are not rare stories, there are many women who give birth in the jail and there are many children under 6 years of age who are living in the jail with the women, not having seen the outside world. A total of 450 children of convicted women and 1310 children of women under trial are lodged in the prisons, until 2015. Pregnant women are entitled to special diets and their special needs pre and post-natal should be catered to, according to the standards mentioned in Model Prison Manual, 2016. But in reality, it isn’t followed.

Sukalo Gond on the left and Rajkumari Bhuiya on the right, sharing their stories.

Sukalo remembers not being physically harassed by the jail authorities since she had the backing of the Union, but other inmates were beaten and harassed if they complained, she said. Harassing and beating of women in jails for protesting or asking for their rights was something that came up in everybody’s accounts. Sukalo also suffered from ill health during her jail time and was not given proper medical attention, as prescribed by the Manual. Others too spoke of there never being any women doctors to attend to them.

Poor attention to physical health, constant harassment or threat of harassment and inhuman living conditions take a toll on the mental health of the inmates. 1.2 % of the inmates, which amount to 5203 persons, were identified to be suffering from mental illnesses, by the end of 2015. Of the 51 women inmates who died in 2015, 3 had committed suicide. Zamser Ali, from the CJP who works closely on the issue of human rights in Assam also reported many suicides relating to the citizenship issue, in the meeting.

Also read: Soni Sori Wins The 2018 Front Line Defenders Award

“One does not expect the jail to be protected from the patriarchal mindset that is prevalent in the society,” said Pooja Shukla, and rightfully so. Women have way lesser space to live, lesser ration for food, less infrastructure and opportunities to work and legal aid, as compared to men. Richa Singh added, “Men possess the resources which women do not and they use them in the jails as well.”

CJP plans to collate the issues raised from the experiences of these women and continue working on them. They also plan to conduct more of such public hearings in other parts of the country to shed light on the problems of women prisoners and gaps in the prison system.

Also read: Patriarchy And The Indian Jails: The Plight Of Female Prisoners In India

In her testimony, Rajkumari said, how there were no women constables when she was arrested. Speaking in her local dialect of Hindi, exuberating with contagious confidence, she said to the police, “Do not think you’ve scared me. And if you think you’ve won by arresting me, then you’re wrong because I’ll continue my fight from the jail.”

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