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Creating rainbow behind bars

Incarcerated with long sentences, women are keen to bring change – in themselves and the confines of prison space

Creating rainbow behind bars

Kamla Rekha Pandey, lodged in Bilaspur Jail, Chattisgarh, was instrumental in getting 14 inmates released from jail with her timely guidance and intervention. She herself is a convict under section 302 IPC and has been in prison with her sisters for over 12 years. Now, she is an active member of the legal cell in jail.

54-year-old Femida Hanif Saiyad, lodged in Nagpur jail, Maharashtra, has been helping inmates learn new skills and has also been active in supporting the prison administration. Imprisoned since 2012, she has been awarded death sentence. She is currently pursuing B.A. second year through IGNOU.

Both of them were amongst the women who received Tinka Tinka Bandini Award for the year 2017 and 2018. These women were chosen because of their undying spirit to help other women who were in situations similar as themselves.

All these inmates are serving long sentences and they are keen to bring a change – in themselves and also at the place confined within the four walls.

Month after month, Tinka Tinka Foundation has been travelling to different prisons across India to understand the realities of prison life. It is not less than a shock to see that despite having different agencies to look at the issues of human rights, we are far behind because of lack of commitment, honesty and also the desire to work for the welfare of those who are completely unheard of. It is also noteworthy that prisons attract media glare because of all the wrong reasons. Adding to it is the glamour quotient that is sometimes attached to it by Bollywood. Sadly, none of them reveal the real picture. Undoubtedly, prisons arouse curiosity. Across the globe, in all countries, prisons are intended to be institutions built to execute punishments and reprisals. Apart from custody and control, prison administration is trained to exercise the habits of mental and physical discipline, honest living, making inmates understand the value of hard work and also work towards reforming their thought process. Sadly, concerns of custody and control take precedence while matters of correctional measures take the backseat. What generally remains ignored is the inescapable fact that after the initial phase of loss and repentance, they struggle against time and look for moments of some hope. In this search, sometimes even a possibility of creativity becomes the reason for their life.

According to the latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau, there are almost 1400 prisons in India, out of which only 18 are women-specific, the first having been established in Maharashtra at Yeravada. In other jails, women's jail is at most a unit of the main jail. This fact itself speaks in volumes on the importance that is given to the issues of women inmates.

In India, prisons are a State subject, covered by Item No. 4 under the State List in the Schedule VII of the Constitution of India. The management and administration of prisons come under the exclusive domain of the state governments and is governed by the Prisons Act 1894 and the prison manuals of the respective state governments. In this light, all the states have the primary role, responsibility, and authority to change the current prison laws, rules and regulations. Although the Union government is not directly responsible for several issues pertaining to the functioning of prisons, they do share the responsibility to provide assistance to the states on issues like repair and renovation of old prisons, vocational training, modernisation of prison industries, training of prison personnel, and for creation of high-security enclosures and improving security in prisons. Needless to say, art and creativity, certainly, is not a priority.

The recent intervention by the Supreme Court of India has brought out the concerns related to the inhuman conditions of inmates in 1384 prisons of India. Despite the number of notices being sent to all these states and union territories, not much change has emerged. Unfortunately, the system that runs the prison and the policymakers who decide upon the framework are guided by their own preconceived notions. Generally, the state is more concerned about the head-count rather than the creative side of the inmates. For a prison administrator, the most important thing is to ensure that neither any of them escape nor die within those four walls. Rest is not that important. Prisons are not assigned any specific funds for encouraging creative skills and thus, art, literature or music are not considered to be of utmost importance. In most of the prisons across India, the position of the teacher for fine arts is not even advertised.

Authorities very conveniently forget that those who have been sent behind bars will also come back someday, and if they are provided with the opportunity to explore the inner side of their personality, they will emerge as better human beings.

In India, more than 370 women convicts with their 450 children and 1,149 women undertrials with their 1,310 children were lodged in various prisons by the end of 2015. In the year 2013, over 1800 children spent their childhood in prisons in India. These children are permitted to accompany their mothers to the prisons till six years of age. Since prisons were never designed with the perspective of accommodating the aspect of womanhood and also childhood, needs of women prisoners generally go unnoticed. Children staying with their mothers live in a shadow of fear and uncertainty. They become undeclared criminals who are forced to spend the most important time of their lives behind bars even without committing any crime. Policy makers rarely realise that there is a vast vacuum and major reforms are required for these innocent souls.

Women like Kamla and Femida can be a source of inspiration for every female inmate because of their desire to contribute despite living in difficult circumstances. There is no dearth of women inmates who have been contributing to prison life. Prison authorities who have encouraged them and provided them the atmosphere to rewrite the stories of their lives also deserve respect and appreciation. It is to be noted that it is not only the inmate who lives a restricted life inside the prisons but on many occasions, it is also the prison staff that has an equally difficult time by being completely cut-off from society and normal life. When both work together zealously and with complete honesty, they create new music altogether.

(Dr. Vartika Nanda is a prison reformer and is the founder of TINKA TINKA, a unique initiative for prison reforms. She was given Stri Shakti Award by the President of India in 2014. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Vartika Nanda

Vartika Nanda

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