It’s been around nine years since Susan* (name changed), a Vietnamese national, was convicted and detained in the Special Prison for Women, Puzhal, for smuggling narcotics. In all these years, the only people who have come to meet her are officials from the Embassy of Vietnam.
“I haven’t met or heard from my family directly but the embassy keeps me informed about their whereabouts,” said Susan. While generally content with the conditions at the prison, Susan pines for her two boys. “They were eight and ten and only about my height when I last saw them. I don’t know how they look now. I do have a picture of them in my mind but they may be very different. I really want to see them, I miss them every day,” she said, her voice quivering.
Susan is among the seven international prisoners detained in the special prison. She is the only one from Vietnam. The others are from Sri Lanka, South Africa and Philippines. She is also reportedly one of the very few inmates who has not been visited by any of her family members. “My father died four years ago. He was the only one who would have made an attempt to come see me. But I have made friends here and they keep me happy and do not remind me of my past,” she said.
Susan says her closest friend is Amanda*, who hails from South Africa. Like Susan, she too was held for smuggling, and has been in remand in the prison for around a month. “If given a chance, I would like to turn back time and lead a satisfied life with my boys and help them build a good life of their own. Now, I do not even know what they are doing, I don’t even know if they are going to school or not. It's all my fault. I was too greedy and selfish back then,” said Susan.
The two are quite famous in the prison. Susan’s tailoring and jewellery making skills are a hit among the inmates, while Amanda helps in organic farming in the backyard and neatly organises the library.
“From new skills to new languages, you learn a lot to kill time in prison. I learnt to speak and read both English and Tamil only after coming here. While everything is well, I have not been able to develop a liking to the food prepared here. It’s so different from what is made in our country,” said Susan.
According to a senior Tamil Nadu Prison Department official, the international prisoners held for criminal activities in India can be tried in their own countries only if their respective foreign officers enter into talks or treaties with the Indian government. “But nothing has been initiated so far. So they will be tried under Indian law. We make sure to take all the necessary steps to ensure their safety and security within the prisons,” the officer said.
Susan, who is expected to complete her term next year, has been making a list of things to do once she returns home. “I first want to see my boys, look after all their needs, and give them all the love I couldn’t in all these years. And the next thing is to set up a jewellery making business. I am literally counting the days before I start a new life,” she said excitedly.
(*Name changed to protect identity)