Women in conflict and custody are a vulnerable group, and these traumatising conditions have long term impact on their mental health

“Roz roz chup chap aasmaan ko dekh dekh kar dimaag kharaab ho raha hai,” (to keep gazing at the sky in silence each and every day is driving us mad.), many women who live inside jails express how something inside them is cracking up.

Traumatising prison conditions and practices often have damaging and long term impact on the mental health of inmates, especially women. Institutions of correction and custody are as fraught with gender and other biases as the world outside.

The World Health Organisation suggests that one in nine of the total prison population of 9 million in the world suffers from some form of mental disorder or illness.

“Our work in prisons leads us to believe that at least 50 per cent of the women locked inside for more than six months show signs of some of the most common mental disorders of the accepted international list of disorders,” states Rani Dhavan Shankardass, Secretary General of PRAJA (Penal Reform and Justice Association), India and Honorary President of Penal Reform International, London, UK.

In her book, In Conflict and Custody (Sage Publications), Rani stresses for the need for counselling and writes, “For women (and other vulnerable groups) it is a severe punishment that needs a hard second look. The wounds are more often than not invisible and therefore insignificant. The NGOs that have worked in women’s prisons in South Asia are struck by the general indifference of the official machinery to the mental state of those who stay and come out worse than when they went in.”

Of all the women that require counselling, women in prisons require it even more so. This makes the case for counselling centres inside prisons very strong. But women in prisons are not a top priority for those who do have women on their agenda. “…if imprisoned women are seen as in need of attention, it is their most basic needs that are considered worthy of focus and not counselling and/or emotional/ mental help or repair which would constitute an indulgence. When women enter prison, they are ‘doubly deviant, doubly damned’. There is scarcely any other group of persons in any society that is measured by a yardstick that has changed so little over time or place,” says Rani.

Around 2,515 women were undergoing sentences for life imprisonment at various prisons in the country at the end of 2010, according to National Crime Records Bureau. This is a sizeable number of women who are wasting away their lives behind bars and need to be attended to. A total of 1,436 deaths were reported (1344 natural and 92 un-natural) during 2010 alone. Of these, 34 deaths were those of female inmates, of which 5 deaths were suicidal in nature.

Moreover, jails exclusively for women prisoners exist only in 12 States and union territories such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan and West Bengal (two each), Bihar, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi (one each).

The overcrowding and unhealthy prison conditions may also take a toll on the physical and mental well being of a woman in custody. There is a need to provide dignity and hygiene to women who serve long sentences inside as well as undertrials. The total capacity of women inmates was highest in Tamil Nadu (1,070) followed by Uttar Pradesh (420), West Bengal & Delhi (400 each), Rajasthan (350), Andhra Pradesh (308), Maharashtra (262), Punjab (150), Bihar (83), Kerala (72), Odisha (55) and Tripura (30) (Table 2.5), according to NCRB data.

In such a scenario, it is important for voluntary organisations and other independent groups to have access to these women for research so that a clearer picture about their condition and needs can be brought to the surface.

“…there is a stereotype of the imprisoned woman as well which is as much in need of being shaken off as any other stereotype. Constructing stereotype images of women ‘inside’ is dangerous because these women are not in a position to resist the constructs imposed on them. Even without contact with women prisoners (who may or may not have committed offences) or direct knowledge of prisons, self-styled experts are able to flaunt views that pass for knowledge about these subjects,” says Rani.

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