A former convict remembers how money could buy some joys, or even freedom, in prison

Vinod Sharma and his wife Kalyani faced their six-year sentence for embezzlement with remarkable acceptance. “We did something wrong, we had to live with it,” says Vinod candidly.

However, the transition from suits and business lunches in glass-façade buildings to the drab prison uniform in the soul-crushing confines of Bangalore Central Jail was not an easy one.

Vinod found himself sharing a room with 40 other people, with only three toilets between them. “For a bath, we had one big tank from where we had to draw water,” he says.

Even though Vinod and Kalyani were less than a few hundred metres from each other, for six years, the two talked only through a meshed wall that separated the men's and women's division.

“I could only see her hands, but we would talk every day, and that got me through the day,” he says.

Forgotten by time

Banished into the kingdom of walls and bars — which Vinod refers to as “Jurassic Park”, a place abandoned by time even — every move is watched by baton-wielding wardens and supervisors.

“There have been times when an inmate is virtually crippled by illness. He still has to pay the doctors or wardens in the jail to get treatment,” Vinod says.

Where there's a will…

Money, he explains, could buy some joys or even freedom, albeit within the prison. Wardens control a whole black market of mobiles, cigarettes, drugs, electronics, and even food.

“In one cell block, there are noodles, vegetables, bread, all supplied by the wardens at exorbitant prices, or stolen from the prison kitchen. We call this the ‘big bazaar',” he says.

With some prisoners managing small induction cookers, he talks of little group parties and ‘barbeques'.

For a fee, some prisoners take a walk outside. “Some go to the main roads and comment on how the city has changed. They eat in a bakery and return a couple of hours later,” he says.

All for a recharge

He says that more than 700 mobiles could be found in the jail, some sneaked in and some bought directly from the wardens; a handset costing Rs. 1,000 outside would be sold for Rs. 2,500 inside.

However, with no standard plug points in the cell, charging it posed a seemingly insurmountable problem. This necessity, however, fuelled innovation that would have impressed any technophile.

According to Vinod, the plastic of the charger is stripped off and a tape put between the input plugs. A wire is drawn from the metal rim of the bulb connection and connected to this.

“We would have a guy on the lookout, while at least eight mobiles get charged simultaneously.”

Release

After the six-year sentence, Kalyani, unable to pay the fine amount, spent an additional year in the prison. A well-wisher offered to help, but the price of her release was quoted as Rs. 93,000, which was Rs. 24,000 more than what was due at that time. “Prison officials told the court that Kalyani had paid Rs. 69,000 and pocketed the rest,” says Vinod.

The stigma has not left the couple, even affecting their three little children.

“Jobs are difficult to get. And, if in school they find out that the children's parents were in jail, they would be discriminated against,” he says.

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Up CloseApril 13, 2011

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