Research reveals the trauma faced by women prisoners after being released as well as the precarious situation of children left at home

There are a few facts that each one of us needs to know. The total number of prisoners in India is roughly about 3.60 lakh, of which, women comprise about 16,000. This is a figure for a particular day when the head count is done and over a year the figure, for instance, could be ten times higher.

Surprisingly, the total number of children living in jails in 2009 was about 2,000 but it hardly reflects how many children go through the prison experience in a year, or five years or 10 years. Interestingly there is also no information about the children left at home due to parental incarceration, a subject neglected in India.

“Unfortunately, we have not considered it necessary to delve into this subject. We ease our consciences by simply addressing the issue of nutrition and literacy for children inside a prison,” says Rani Dhavan Shankardass, secretary general of PRAJA (Penal Reform and Justice Association) and honorary president of PRI (Penal Reform International), U.K.

PRAJA was set up in 1996 to examine the need for reforms in the Indian criminal and penal justice systems and aims to highlight the relationship between social and formal (institutional) justice. Through research and dissemination of information about good practices, PRAJA works towards reforms that bring justice closer to people and, particularly, to vulnerable groups.

“A vital part of PRAJA’s research and work agenda relates to highlighting the fact that a prison is as much an institution of State as courts or the police. Yet its management and administration is neglected both by the State and by society for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is inhabited mostly by the poor and the powerless,’’ Ms. Shankardass told The Hindu.

Working in prisons in Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and partly in Madhya Pradesh, Ms. Shankardass realised that women and children comprised a special category of prisoners and among them was a sub-category of old, mentally ill and pregnant women who needed special attention. “Why is a prisoner, particularly a woman, in jail and what happens to her after she is released, issues which need to be addressed sensitively and people need to be told about it,” she says. Women are the category of prisoners who are instantaneously disowned by society.

“We are now working on children who are left outside when either or both parents are in jail. What happens to the rights of these children is a major issue. One reason for this neglect is that our formal justice machinery does not require the judge to ask whether there is family or children behind. We must take formal cognisance of prisoners left behind,’’ she explains.

Some of the prisoners are proven guilty while some are locked up awaiting trial. Some are small-time offenders and some have made serious offences. Some others are harmless while some can be dangerous, though this is a small fraction. Most are not even habitual offenders and have become offenders under severely adverse and compelling circumstances. PRAJA’s study of about 1,000 women prisoners in Indian jails has shown that there are misconceptions and distortions going around that need to be focussed on.

Its efforts towards prison reforms and change in the criminal justice system primarily focuses on prison conditions, independent inspection of prisons, greater transparency in prison management, fundamental basic human rights for prisoners and staff and reducing the load of pending cases in courts.

Penal Reform International is a worldwide movement that seeks to go into these details in depth to see how ignorance of all facts about prisons and prisoners leads to sins of omission and commission on our part that need to be avoided.

Penal reforms are seeking to come together to see that alternatives are explored for the small time offender with a view to ensuring that neither he nor his family is ruined by a jail sentence, and that something constructive is done for the victims. Community service is an alternative to prison that has been tried for small offenders in some countries.

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