Tihar Jail, which houses some of the most dreaded criminals in the country, has been in the news over the past few months for all the wrong reasons. Incidents of inmate violence, prison officials conniving in running extortion rackets, and killings of undertrials purportedly at the hands of jail staff are rampant in the Capital’s maximum-security prison. In this backdrop, Sunil Gupta, author and a prison expert, who has served as a law officer and spokesperson at Tihar Jail for almost four decades, speaks to The Hindu about what ails the jail administration and if there is a better way to tackle the situation.
There have been at least 15 incidents of violence inside Tihar since July. Have such occurrences been common during your tenure or can the current state of affairs be called unprecedented?
It would be wrong to say that such incidents didn’t occur in the past. During my tenure, there were scuffles too. Inmate fights are common as jails are known as the garbage dumps of a civilised society, but the level of indiscipline inside Tihar has undoubtedly increased. Tihar has, of course, been infamous for prison breaks and staff malpractices for which we have been pulled up time and again by the National Human Rights Commission. But the current state of affairs shows the management is going downhill, and unless drastic changes are made to the staff structure and overall functioning of the prison, such instances are here to stay.
Why do such brawls become common inside the prison? Is there a particular reason such as past rivalries or one-upmanship among inmates?
The increased presence of Delhi-based gangsters could be one of the reasons. Earlier, most of the criminals belonged to U.P. and Haryana. If rival gang members are kept in the same cell or barrack or if a gang leader gets to know that an inmate has helped his rival or is part of an opposite gang, then friction is bound to happen. Such violence is also caused by lack of identification as it is the police’s duty to inform beforehand as to which gang the accused belongs to, following which they are accordingly allotted a cell or a barrack. Besides, gangsters often try to dominate others and hence, they find reasons to pick a fight. Prisons are breeding grounds for fresh recruits as gang leaders are always on the lookout for men who match their ideology. There were gang wars inside Tihar during my tenure as well, so it’s not a recent occurrence.
Most of such fights inevitably involve knives, blades or other sharp weapons, which are seized from the inmates’ possession. How do the inmates get hold of such items? Are they smuggled into the jail?
While these items can easily be smuggled with the connivance of prison staff, most of the weapons are improvised and are procured in-house. Often, the inmates break parts of the fan inside their barrack or cell or destroy the television and use its internal parts as weapons. They even cut the steel plates on which food is served in order to use the sharp end for attacks. It is not practical to expect jail guards to keep an eye on such things throughout the day as an inmate can use any random object as a weapon. There have also been a number of cases where prisoners hide contraband or mobile phones inside their body cavity to smuggle them into the jail.
The possession of mobile phones among inmates is an open secret. The phones are used to run extortion rackets from inside the jail or for carrying out hit jobs outside. How are they able to make use of phones when there are jammers installed?
Yes, there is rampant use of mobile phones. A common way to smuggle mobiles into Tihar is to throw them over the boundary walls, a major portion of which is very close to residential areas. The scenario in both Tihar and Mandoli jails is such that if someone throws something from outside, it will eventually fall in the hands of the intended inmate. About jammers, inmates cleverly cut their power supply as they themselves carry out all the electric work of the jail and know the entire power set-up . Since these jammers block communication channels by scanning in circles, the inmates know the spots which are out of the scanner’s reach. Moreover, the jammers use old technology and cannot catch 4G signal. Mobiles are treasured items and jail staff might charge hefty money to smuggle them in.
Scuffles between jail staff and undertrials have come to light. In gangster Ankit Gujjar’s murder case, four prison officials, including a deputy superintendent, were suspended and a case was lodged against them, while the matter is now being probed by the CBI. What leads to such incidents?
While several allegations have been made by Ankit’s family in the petition about his killing, the misconduct and misbehaviour on the part of jail officials does not come as a surprise. In my experience, a majority of such incidents occur when there is a sense of hostility between the jail staff and the inmates. For instance, if a prisoner has failed to comply with certain instructions or has failed to pay a bribe to the jail staff on a said day, violence might occur and eventually take an ugly turn like in the case of Ankit. Caste rivalries also play out when an inmate and a jail official belong to different castes. Besides, inmates and prison staff try to establish their position which leads to ego clashes and subsequent hostility.
Why is it that in so many of these incidents, the role of jail staff has been revealed? Is there a deep-rooted structural problem in their postings or is it negligence on the part of the prison administration?
While negligence has always been there, one of the most pressing problems that, in my view, has led to the present situation is the deputation of incompetent officers at commanding posts. What Tihar needs right now are young and energetic officers. A majority of the jail staff are DANICS (Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Civil Services) officers. But, instead of fresh recruits, promotee DANICS personnel are deputed, which leads to maladministration as they do not possess the requisite competence and expertise to handle jail affairs. Also, there is lack of coordination between staff members. There should be promotional avenues within the jail cadre so that they eventually go on to occupy the commanding posts.
Can the current mismanagement be attributed to Tihar being one of the most overcrowded yet understaffed prisons in India?
Absolutely. Jails have always been a low priority area as Governments only plan to build either hospitals or schools. The problem of overcrowding arises because there are not enough prisons. Incidents are bound to occur unless more staff is deployed at the jail. If adequate attention is not given to jails, especially Tihar as it houses some of the most high-profile undertrials and convicts, things will go wrong.
It might be a long shot but in light of the current events, is there a chance of a full-fledged prison break or violence inside Tihar?
No. A prison escape would not be possible in the current scenario as the entire jail premises is guarded by the Tamil Nadu Special Police Force, which carries out stringent surveillance. Other paramilitary forces such as the Central Reserve Police Force and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police are also deployed at Tihar and they are well-equipped to handle such a situation. If an inmate tries to escape, the person has to first breach the peripheral security and if that person manages to overcome that, police personnel posted on the towers will spot them.
What drastic changes do you think are needed to address Tihar’s current situation?
To curb prisoner fights, inmates in cells and barracks should be frisked every day and surprise checks should be carried out under the supervision of senior officers. During my tenure, such checks were the norm and still are, but they should now be intensified. In case of negligence or collusion, responsibility should be fixed on the jail official concerned and departmental action should be taken. Moreover, there is no training centre for the prison staff to help them understand the rule of law and human rights of inmates, and steps should be taken in this regard.
Do you think behavioural changes need to be inculcated in inmates in order to curb such incidents of violence? Should parole and furlough be encouraged as a means of reform?
After spending years in prison, there is a pent-up anger and frustration among inmates, which is human nature. The provisions of parole and furlough were brought in with the intention to reform prisoners and help them reconnect with the outer world. Hence, they should be promoted. To encourage reform, the concept of bail is the rule and jail is the exception should also be upheld by courts. Additionally, initiatives like Vipassana meditation and Art of Living are effective tools to help inmates reflect and find their inner self.
Seeing the current scenario, shouldn’t the judiciary take suo motu cognisance of the happenings inside Tihar Jail and pass a stringent order?
Yes, it should, but unfortunately, a Supreme Court panel on prison reforms headed by Justice Amitava Roy was formed and it had issued crucial directions in February last year, but they have not been followed. Even if the judiciary takes cognisance of these cases, I hardly think it would make an impact on ground. In 1980 too, a Committee on Jail Reforms was set up under the chairmanship of Allahabad High Court Justice A.N. Mulla. However, several of its directions are yet to be implemented.