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No Rhymes, Food Or Justice For The ‘Hidden Victims’ of India’s Prison System

According to Prison Statistics report, published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 4,78,600 people in jail in India as on the 31st of December, 2019.

Women constituted around 4.1% of this figure, numbering a total of 19,913 women. In particular, there were 1,543 women prisoners with 1,779 children all over India– majorly in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. 

However, the report reflected that there are only 31 women’s jails in 15 Indian states and Union Territories, while female inmates in other parts of the country are housed in women’s enclosures of general prisons.

Most of these ‘general prisons’ have primarily been designed to suit the needs of men. The relatively less percentage of women prisoners apparently makes it economically infeasible to create specific infrastructure for them or their children. 

More often than not, children with incarcerated parents come from impoverished households. They face grave threats to their safety, financial security, mental, physical and emotional development and education outcomes.

At an age when they should be reciting nursery rhymes or learning how to cycle, they’re either put in a cage that restricts their freedom to move, think and learn independently. They’re housed in childcare institutions with no sense of belonging or familial connection.

Even among the incarcerated, around 66% come from SC, ST and OBC categories and other marginalised groups. It is the children of these women who suffer the most, with their misguided efforts further entrenching the cycle of crime. 

Are The Needs Of Children Being Met?

To protect the interests and overall well-being of children with incarcerated parents, the Supreme Court of India has laid down guidelines that are to be followed by prison administrations all over the country. 

Moreover, the National Prison Manual provides for a crèche and nursery school in every prison with children. This is not only for their growth but also to allow their mothers to participate in the educational/vocational training programmes of the prison.

A suitable environment, the closest imitation of the outside world, must also be provided for the children’s upbringing. These systems should have adequate natural light, minimum security restrictions, an outdoor play area, the opportunity to socialize with peers, etc. 

Furthermore, the particulars of guardians in whose custody the children of women prisoners are kept must be recorded, ensuring that the inmate could take custody of their child from the Child Care Institution after serving their sentence.

Most importantly, these children, whether living in prison or visiting, must never be treated as offenders themselves. 

Representational image.

The reality of maternal incarceration for children in India, however, does not align with the provisions that are mandated by law.

Research by The National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Sciences showed that most of these children were suffering from lack of food, healthcare, accommodation, education, recreation, etc. 

The nutritional requirements of these children or their mothers during pregnancy or postnatal period were not sufficiently met. In many jails, women inmates with children were not given any special or extra meals.

Occasionally, some extra food, mostly in the form of a glass of milk, was available to children, which, too, would split by evening. 

Besides, no specialised medical facilities were available for these children. Though cases of pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid, malaria, diarrhea, dental and skin problems were often noticed, no specific attention was given.

In one case, the treatment of a polio-affected child was stopped after the mother was arrested. 

The care duties of these children were mostly left to their mothers, with no prison officers being deployed on the exclusive duty of looking after them. Moreover, mothers would often worry about their children being raised in overly crowded environments or their proximity to habitual offenders. 

The report by Prayas further states that in the absence of any other caretakers, older children of prisoners are placed in state-run childcare institutions until they turn 18. This leads to the possibility of siblings getting separated in the process or elder siblings having to look after the family financially.

They may even have to drop out of school, make arrangements for legal aid for their mothers, go to court and reassure their mothers that things were okay at home, even if they were not. In a way, these are all examples of parent-child role-reversal. 

What About Their Mental Health?

Children of women prisoners may face severe mental health issues due to family adversity or trauma owing to the arrest of their mothers.

The hostile manner of interrogation, the hostile environment of the police station/prison/court, separation from the mother or siblings due to being neglected emotionally can all cause the child to develop anxiety, depression or other mental health problems. 

Family problems like the dissolution of parents’ marriage after arrest, extreme poverty, residential instability or substance abuse by the parent can also cause the child to become emotionally overburdened, aggressive or unstable.

They may even run away from their home or lose crucial years of formative growth to working and taking care of their basic needs. 

The children who don’t live in prison may find it impossibly hard to connect with their mothers if they aren’t allowed enough opportunities to visit or due to feelings of being ashamed, angry or abandoned. 

Studies have shown that the longitudinal negative impact of maternal incarceration is greater than that of paternal incarceration. In the Indian context, this tends to wreak more havoc on a child’s development because of the fact that mostly, it is the mother who is the primary caregiver in a family.

When the bond between a child and the mother is severed as a result of incarceration, it can not only lead to the stunted emotional growth of the child but also institute financial strain in that family and could subsequently lead to a situation of abandonment and vagrancy of the child.

A combination of these results can perpetuate the multigenerational occurrence of crimes and incarceration. Children, therefore, tend to become the ‘hidden victims’ of our criminal justice system,” said Radhika Roy, a New Delhi based lawyer who focuses on constitutional law and human rights. 

Representational image.

The system turns people into statistics. It not only erases an inmate’s individuality but also their children’s. It produces individuals who have been raised in rooms that are not nearly as forgiving towards their mistakes and childlike whims.

It runs south to what the ideal environment for their upbringing would look like, in rooms full of improper examples. In this way, too, the system runs the risk of imitating exactly what it intends to stop. 

Many of these children are born in prison and they do not experience a normal childhood.

Goes without saying, staying in such a restrictive and possibly violent environment affects their social skills and the ability to interact/compete with the outside world.

Moreover, when the basic physiological needs of these children aren’t being met, it becomes obvious that their mental development through education or recreational activities isn’t on anybody’s priority list.

This hampers the intellectual, emotional and moral growth of these children, often pushing them towards a life of crime or untoward activities in their adolescence and adulthood. 

Is There Any Way To Improve The Scenario?

Women prisoners have personally suggested being given the option to buy edible items for their children since they can earn inside jail premises through their jobs. 

The R.D. Upadhyay vs State Of A.P. & Ors judgement further states that a permanent arrangement needs to be evolved to make separate food available for children.

They must also be provided with clothes, bedsheets, utensils, etc. in multiple sets. The judgement also mentions that in the event of a woman prisoner falling ill herself, alternative arrangements for looking after their child should be made by the jail staff.

Prisons could also provide educational scholarships for the children of women prisoners after they turn 6. For example,  In Tihar Jail, Delhi, children of inmates who are from Delhi are provided educational scholarships of Rs. 3,500 for one child and Rs. 6,000 for two children per month, subject to conditions like income. 

While the Scheme for Financial Sustenance, Education and Welfare of Children of Incarcerated Parents, 2014 exists in Delhi, its scope is excessively limited, does not factor in the position of a mother as the primary caregiver, and requires urgent amendment.

Therefore, maternal incarceration ends up leaving the child without any support, which may not be the case with paternal incarceration,” said Radhika, emphasising that “the State must therefore ensure sustained interaction between the child and the incarcerated mother and maintain the child’s education and nutrition benefits to protect them from potential destitution.

We must also remember that the purpose of reformative justice is to ensure that the individual is able to mend their behaviour so that their eventual release in society does not create a harmful effect and there is no fear of repetition of the crime.

In this regard, regular contact with the child can end up helping, not just the child, but also the mother to assimilate properly in society once they are released,” she added. 

For this, the State could also increase the frequency and duration of parole for women inmates with children. In case of visits, the environment that is provided for the child to interact with their mother should be well-suited to the needs and comfort of the child so they can open up without any hesitation. 

Most importantly, it must be of paramount importance to ensure that these children are never exploited or made to feel unsafe by those in power or by other inmates.

Staying in crowded barracks amidst other convicts, who could be violent, is certainly harmful to these children and is bound to impact the way the child will be perceived by society.

It should therefore be a continuous endeavour of the criminal justice system that the least number of children follow their mothers to live in jail, and if they do, they are removed from that environment on a priority basis.

The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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