Women prisoners: The way ahead
Prison spaces and condition for women have come a long way
While assessing the condition of Indian prisons in 1835, Lord Macaulay described them as "shocking to humanity". The prisons system has definitely evolved from the medieval and the British times which mainly focused on incarceration and inhuman treatment of inmates. The prison conditions have significantly improved but a public interest litigation titled 'Inhuman Conditions in Prisons', in the Supreme Court puts focus on the not so desirable conditions in the Indian prisons.
As per the NCRB data compiled up to 2015, there were approximately 4.2 lakh prisoners in some 1400 prisons in the country. Women, at 17,834, constitute just above 4 per cent of the entire prison population. Most of the women inmates are confined to separate enclosures in general prisons. Shockingly, there are only 18 prisons which cater exclusively to the women inmates. Whether the design of these 18 prisons is suitable to the specific needs of women remains debatable. The World Health Organization has observed that "prison system was primarily designed for men and many prisons do not have adequate facilities to protect women rights or to promote their health". This observation has been made in respect of the prisons in the world and is not targeted at India. The fact remains that the percentage of separate prisons for women is low and needs to be improved at the earliest.
As with men, 2/3rd of women prisoners are also undertrial prisoners waiting to be tried by various courts which are heavily burdened with millions of pending cases. Women prisoners who are lodged in general prisons are perceived to be more vulnerable than their male counterparts, for obvious reasons. According to the NCRB data, 31.3 per cent of women prisoners are in the age group of 18-30 while another 50.5 per cent are 30-50 years old. The very fact that almost 82 per cent of women lodged in the jails fall in the age group of 18-50 years means that their personal hygiene and medical requirements vastly differ from their male counterparts and need to be addressed differently in the prisons. Globally, there is a conscious effort to treat them as a distinct category of inmates by recognising their special needs and creating an infrastructure to suit them specificly.
The fact that 82 per cent of women in prisons are in the reproductive age also means that most of them have children to look after inside and outside prisons. As of 2015, 1597 women inmates were lodged with 1866 children in the prisons in the country. Separation of children from mothers is traumatic, to say the least. Issues of pregnant inmates, lactating mothers, young children, special diet, specialised medical care, etc., become important management issues in the prison administration if humane treatment is to be meted out to this category of prisoners.
Of late, emphases has been laid on rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners rather than incarceration. Open jails have been talked about as a more viable and humane substitute to the standard prisons. Of the 3789 prisoners in open jails in 2015, women accounted for only 109, that too in a handful of states such as Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh. Himachal Pradesh, though a small state, has done a pioneering work in creating open jail facilities in the state. Nearly 200 inmates have been placed in the open category and these inmates are supported by the Prisons Department by providing jobs not only in the prison factories but outside the confines of the prisons in partnership with industries, businesses and by innovative initiatives like Shimla Book Café. The department is also in the process of setting up a prison in Baddi which is a major industrial and pharma hub in Himachal Pradesh with a view of providing jobs to inmates. It is truly gratifying for Himachal Pradesh that the Apex Court in its interim orders dated 15/09/2017 observed:
"The suggestion given by the learned Amicus of encouraging the establishment of 'open jails' or 'open prisons' is certainly worth considering. It was brought to our notice that the experiment in Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) and the semi-open prison in Delhi are extremely successful and need to be carefully studied. Perhaps there might be equally successful experiments carried out in other States as well and if so they require to be documented, studied and emulated."
Skill development of women prisoners is also important because their reintegration upon their release is more challenging due to the stigma attached to them. Frequent exhibition of products made by the women inmates, visits by members of civil society to the prisons, awareness about the reforms taking place inside the prisons, all help in their better reintegration with their family and society. Women are being skilled in handlooms, bakery, cutting, stitching, weaving, and grooming services in the prisons in Himachal Pradesh. Himachal prisons have achieved yet another milestone by rehabilitating one woman inmate, who has been employed outside the prison in an educational society. And this step is just a beginning.
The role of Government is paramount in improving the living conditions inside jails for women inmates. State and the Central Governments have to support the prison establishments to make them reformatories. Several committees have been constituted in the past since Independence which have made recommendations to improve the condition of prisoners, particularly women in the Indian prisons. All India Jail Manual Committee, 1957, Working Group of Prisons, 1972, All India Prison Reforms Committee, 1980-83 (Mulla Committee), All India Group of Prison Administration, Security and Discipline, 1986, National Expert Committee on Women Prisoner, 1987 (Justice Krishna Ayer Committee), and Ministry of Women and Child Development Report on women in prisons, 2018 have made several recommendations for improving the living condition for women prisoners. The Supreme Court has also directed state High Courts to monitor the condition of prisons in the states. It is hoped that with the recent pro-activism of the courts, the government departments will come together and join hands to improve the conditions of women prisoners in India in the coming years.
Heads of Prisons & Correctional Services in the Country are assembling in Shimla on 4th and 5th October 2018 to discuss the issues pertaining to women prisoners in two days on the theme of "Women in Detention – Access to Justice". The Conference is co-hosted by the Department of Prisons & Correctional Services, Himachal Pradesh and Bureau of Police Research and Development.
(The author is Director General of Prisons & Correctional Services in Himachal Pradesh. The views expressed are strictly personal)