|A police officer closes one of the gates of Tihar jail; (right) Ram Singh’s brother, mother and father (left to right) at their home in New Delhi on Monday. (AP and Reuters)
New Delhi, March 11: Sex offenders in prison often find themselves positioned on the lowest rungs of a hierarchy of inmates, which exposes them to particularly bad treatment from fellow prisoners, psychologists who have studied jail violence have said.
They say the phenomenon is believed to be widespread and, in some countries, has prompted law-enforcement authorities to segregate sex offenders from other inmates in prisons where they are viewed as vulnerable to physical attacks.
Delhi police sources have said that bus gang-rape accused Ram Singh, who allegedly committed suicide at Tihar jail this morning, had been repeatedly abused and attacked by other inmates since being arrested in December.
“There exists a hierarchy in the prison subculture,” said Barindra Nath Chattoraj, professor and dean of academics at the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Sciences, New Delhi, a government research and training institution.
Decades of observations suggest that murderers and dacoits are near the top of the hierarchy, followed by those jailed for petty thefts or cheating, but sex offenders find themselves right at the bottom, Chattoraj said.
Criminal psychologists have observed jail violence against sex offenders in many countries.
“Sex offenders are treated badly in UK prisons and are segregated from other prisoners, especially when it is a high-profile case and the victim is young,” said Anthony Beech, head of criminological psychology at the University of Birmingham in Britain.
“In the UK, a term used for a sex offender is ‘nonce’ — meaning a nonsense offence,” Beech said.
The violence against sex offenders, called “nonce-bashing”, usually occurs in a corner of a jail when the guards are away.
Psychologists trying to make sense of this phenomenon believe it is a way in which inmates assert their positions in the hierarchy of inmates.
“It’s something to assert their superiority,” said Arvind Tiwari, professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, who has spent many years studying violence in prisons.
The sense of superiority itself, psychologists suspect, emerges from the nature of the crime.
“From their perspective, murder or dacoity may be ‘justified’ — they may cite circumstances or reasons that led them to commit such crimes, equally heinous,” Tiwari said.
“But sex offenders have no explanation to offer for their crimes,” Chattoraj said.
Criminal psychologists, however, point out that prison violence is a complex phenomenon, in principle influenced by several other factors such as overcrowding and opportunities for violence. Studies suggest that overcrowding affects both physical and mental health of prisoners.
Some of Ram Singh’s neighbours grimaced with disgust today as they remembered a man they described as a menace, who was violent, drank heavily and used to harass women by peeking at them as they undressed, Reuters reported.
“People had forgotten about this whole thing. Now all of a sudden, this idiot hangs himself and look how this is in focus again,” said an auto-rickshaw driver in the cramped and grubby Ravidass Camp slum.
“He won’t let us live in peace. Whatever peace we were slowly getting has now gone again.”
Ram’s family had migrated to New Delhi from Rajasthan in search of a livelihood in the 1990s. Ram found work as a bus driver, a job he stuck with even after an accident in 2009 fractured his right arm so badly that doctors had to insert a rod to support it.
He later appeared on a reality TV show in a compensation dispute with a bus owner, who in turn accused Ram of “drunken, negligent and rash driving”. In the show, the moustachioed, slightly built man was seen walking stiffly and holding his right arm at an awkward angle.
Residents say Ram, a heavy drinker with a violent temper, was a menace to an otherwise peaceful neighbourhood.
They said they remember an elderly woman confronting Ram about why he was always drunk. He is said to have replied: “Let me have my way. I will be world famous like this one day.”
A neighbour, 19-year-old Priya, remembers Ram as a “disgusting” man. “Sometimes, while we were changing clothes or bathing, he would peep into our house. When confronted, he would be very rude and say it’s his right to stand anywhere.”
Ram eloped with a neighbour, a married mother of three, more than a decade ago, residents say. She died in 2008 and Ram eventually came back to the slum.
Although he had few friends, a slum resident said Ram was often seen with four persons who were later to become his fellow accused in the gang-rape case.
The police report used to charge the accused draws a picture of Ram as the ringleader of the group. On the night of December 16, the accused gathered at his house for dinner, where he hatched a plan to take the bus out to look for a victim to rape.
The police say they found him sitting in the bloodstained school bus, wearing a bloodied T-shirt, the morning after the crime. A DNA test revealed that the blood belonged to the rape victim, the report said.