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Jailed by circumstances

The imprisonment of mothers with dependent young children is a problematic issue. ANINDITA RAMASWAMY explores the only world that these children know ... in jail.

THERE is very little to break the familiarity and deadening monotony of Aslam's routine. He wakes up to a roll call, is taken to a crèche where he eats a breakfast of halwa-puri, patties or paranthas, and spends the next few hours in a closed room learning the alphabet or drawing. A lunch of khichdi or roti subzi follows. A non-government organisation (NGO) provides him with one fruit everyday usually an apple or orange. During winter, he is treated to milk and an egg. He can play with the other children, but, like the others, is taken away and locked up in the evening.

This four-year-old boy is imprisoned by circumstances as much as he is by the looming walls that surround him. Aslam is currently lodged in the high-security Tihar Prisons in New Delhi because his mother has been convicted for murder. Aslam was born in jail and this is the only world he knows.

The crèche in jail no. 6-A, the women's jail in Asia's largest prison, is a large room with a high ceiling, a wall crowded with fading posters, a floor covered with mats on which groups of women sit rocking crying babies, a rickety cupboard holding some toys, a row of silent cribs and a huddle of small tables and chairs. Aslam is among hundreds of innocent children living in jails across India, only because their mothers have been imprisoned. While both convicts and undertrials are permitted to keep small children with them, the age limit varies as prisons is a state subject. The imprisonment of mothers of dependent young children is deeply problematic. The effects of incarceration can be particularly catastrophic on the children and costly to the state — both immediately, in terms of providing for their care, and long-term, because of the social problems arising from early separation.

Children shouldn't be allowed to stay in jail, insists Kusum, as she recuperates in Tihar's hospital. One month pregnant when arrested for murdering her husband, with six children outside, she has delivered her seventh, a son. "This baby was born in jail. What do I call him?" she asked, adding that she has no one to send him to and has had no news of her family in nearly six months. "They take good care of us. But, this is no place to bring up a child. The women are violent and use abusive language. How will I protect him?" A shocking survey on children of women prisoners — conducted by the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Sciences, Ministry of Home Affairs, between 1997-2000 — documents the conditions of deprivation and criminality in which they are forced to grow up, lack of proper nutrition, inadequate medical care and little opportunity for education. Inmates in jails speak hesitantly of the ill treatment children often face, particularly if the mother is new or seen to be weak. Five-year-old Arti, who has been in Jaipur women's prison for a year after her mother was convicted in a cheating case, has a vocabulary replete with legal terms and profanities. "I know this is a jail. My mother did something bad, so I have to live here with her. I know what bail is. If my mother gets that then we can go back to our village."

Last year the Indian Council of Legal Aid and Advice filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, asking that state governments formulate proper guidelines for the protection and welfare of children of women prisoners. Tihar's Women's Jail Superintendent Sunita Sabharwal said, "We are doing whatever we can within our resources to give them the best possible facilities." This ranges from medical checkups for pregnant women and health education classes for mothers to vaccines for children. Officials say that prisons in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan have special diets for lactating mothers and babies. In Mehgalaya, breastfeeding mothers are kept in a separate enclosure. In Tamil Nadu, the special prisons for women in Vellore and Madurai have crèches, as do Presidency Central Jail in West Bengal and Nari Bandi Niketan in Lucknow. Jail conditions are, however, deplorable in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Unfortunately, prisons are not a priority for any government because inmates are typically poor, illiterate and powerless, and because of the prevailing attitude that prisoners deserve what they get. Director General (Prisons), Tihar, Ajay Agarwal, said, "The easiest excuse is to say that there is no money for reforms or better facilities. The fact is that no one cares for those who are locked up. It is not difficult to have imaginative and productive programmes for the prisoners, to generate revenue from prisons. You must have the will to do it."

Like the authorities in Andhra Pradesh. Last November, five children living with their mothers at the State Women's Jail in Chanchalguda, were enrolled in a private school. The children — all below five years — were given new uniforms, slates and shoes and sent to a nursery outside the jail. Deputy Inspector General of Police M.R. Ahmed said, "We want to give them an opportunity to grow up normally along with other children. ."

Can't such practices be replicated in other states? Would our parliamentarians show more of an interest in prisons, if inmates were allowed to vote? Shouldn't judges routinely visit prisons to see where they are sending people, sometimes for life? To most, prison life is a mystery. We must at least start talking about the issue of children and women in jail, so that the fragile voices of inmates like Aslam and Kusum are heard far beyond prison walls.

(Names of prison inmates have been changed to protect their identity.)

This series of articles has been brought out by the Press Institute of India as a sequel to the Manual on Reporting on Human Rights in India brought out by the Press Institute with the support of the British Council and the Thomson Foundation of Britain.

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