By Shruti Singh:
There was a girl who had been arrested and put in judicial custody for causing hurt in an act of robbery. She was a year younger than me and was already married. Her husband was arrested too but got out on bail and began living with his parents in a small suburb of Mumbai. The girl, in the meantime, would ask everyone to send a message to her husband, asking him to meet her. He never came. He even denied ever being married to her. She could not ask for help from her father because he had disowned her for marrying outside their social status. Her parents never visited her either. She would quietly sit on the steps right outside the cell and wait for her name to be called out on the loud speaker for a ‘mulakat’. Every day without fail. Her name was never called out.
There was another woman who was in judicial custody for trafficking a girl from the northern part of India to Maharashtra for prostitution. Her elder son was in a shelter home while the younger one was with her. She gave me a number of a man asking me to tell him to send her some money because her son is falling sick. She did not have any support system outside to help her monetarily so that she could buy basic food items from the canteen. Her son was five years old and was not a favourite among other women. He was rowdy and restless, but he loved his mother. Each time she cried recalling her life in her native village, he would leave everything, come and hug her. After this, he would go back to playing with the other children and would imitate the women during curfew time. He was the oldest child.
There was one more woman who would cry every time she would talk about her husband. She was inside for a crime that her husband had allegedly committed but because he was absconding, she took the blame. “I never wanted to do it but I felt helpless.” Her words still resound with me. There were many more women whom I worked with – each with a compelling story to share, of how they ended up in a prison.
In the previous year, I had the opportunities to first carry out primary data collection and to intern in two different women’s prisons of Mumbai area. And after answering a lot of obnoxious questions about my work and the ‘criminals’, I decided to pen this down, to remind each one of us that those who are inside a prison are humans first. As a criminal justice social worker, my job was not to treat them as innocent or guilty, my job was to recognise the potential inside them and to make them aware of the same. I was supposed to talk to them, understand their contexts and assist them with anything that they wanted.
All of them came from middle and lower middle class backgrounds, with little or no education. Their children were either put in protective custody or were outside with families or on their own. Each of them had glaring mental health issues, with some showing signs of acute depression. Custodial violence was normalised as the prison staff needed to ‘maintain discipline and order’.
The children inside are visibly malnourished and the whole of prison population has skin problems that change their shapes and sizes as the humidity levels in the air changes. There were women who hadn’t been taken to court in six months, whose lawyers were making under-the-table deals with the public prosecutor, whose families had withdrawn support, and whose only ray of hope were the social workers meeting them every day and attempting to promise a better future.
A lot of times I have been asked about my opinion on offenders and the various other issues revolving around punishment and justice. Time and again, I have maintained that while crime is inevitable, demonising offenders is not the solution. A prison, as an institution, was meant to be a correctional facility where those who came in conflict with the law, would be detained and also be in an environment where these offenders could be corrected.
However, public opinion on this issue has always led the discussion to be dumped in trash and prisons became synonymous with retributive justice and punishment. Kill the rapists! Kill the murderers! But never try to openly discuss who and what created these rapists and murderers. Those who are inside prisons are people you might have come across in your daily life. What separates them from us is the fact that some of them were tired of their circumstances while others gave in to their fit of rage.
Indian prisons are overcrowded and the prison reforms are not on anyone’s priority. There is over-representation of Muslims and people from lower economic households. The judiciary is crammed with pending cases that will take years to solve. There is under-staffing, not only in the prisons departments, but also in the police department, which is one reason why a lot of under-trial prisoners are unable to be presented in front of the judge due to lack of police escorts. The general outlook of people towards prisoners is that of disgust and anger, completely ignoring that the offenders were as much part of the society as the law-abiding citizens. The shift from retributive justice to rehabilitative justice will not happen unless each of us understands the reason behind a certain kind of crime. While interacting with the jailer of the prison I interned in, I touched upon the issue of recidivism. What he said was etched in my memory. He said, “When a prisoner is released, it is the responsibility of her family, the community and the larger society to ensure that she is reintegrated with them. If that person commits a similar crime again, then you need to question how you failed as a society to provide the safety net to her that compelled her to commit the crime again.”
My point for writing this down is not to support offenders in what they did. Neither am I saying that there should not be strict punishments. Instead, my point is to humanise those who commit crimes. My point is to start a dialogue where we can have a healthy discussion on how our justice systems have failed time and again to rehabilitate them and still cry foul over repeated crimes. It is to understand what compels an individual to go against the law, knowing very well that he/she could be punished. What I saw in each of the 50 women undertrials that I worked with was immense potential to contribute to their immediate surroundings. Each of them had a spark in them, waiting to be encouraged. There is a need for more people to study the criminal justice system, work within it and engage with those who come in contact with it – those who need to be represented.