This is an “interview” unlike any in a state where snaking lines are a familiar sight.
Morning has broken and the visitors are queuing up outside Calcutta’s Presidency jail (officially, correctional home). They are registering for an “interview” with their relatives who are spending time inside.
Many of the inmates are yet to be found guilty — undertrials damned to the dungeons for years without conviction or sentencing and nationally outnumbering the convicts. As many as 65 per cent of India’s prisoners are undertrials. (See chart below)
Once the registration is over, the visitors wait till late afternoon to receive the papers that would allow them to enter the prison premises.
Then unfolds a sight that remains mired in an archaic and inhuman colonial legacy.
The visitors come face to face with a row of windows, meshed with three layers of iron wires to prevent physical contact or smuggling of goods, that open into a room barely four feet wide. The visitors sweat and jostle to get closer to the windows and spot the prisoner they have come to meet.
At the other end, the inmates too shove each other to get closer to the windows, locate their family members and speak to them. As both sides shout to get themselves heard, the din in the dingy room becomes insufferable for the outsider — such as this reporter who was part of a team that visited the jail.
As the interview hours tick away and jail staff ask batches of visitors to make room for the next, some people at either end bang their heads or fists on the netted windows in desperation.
They have failed to get their share of the sanctioned space and time after spending almost a day to catch a glimpse of a relative’s face.
Inmates’ families say the jail staff “help” them by putting their names up for the “interviews” with the convicts and undertrials on stipulated days against a “fee” of Rs 5 to Rs 10 per prisoner.
According to some families, the corruption at jail gates is less rampant now. But the families say they still need to pay paltry sums to ensure that the food, clothes, soap or medicines they bring are delivered to their loved ones. Sometimes, the visiting relatives have to give jail staff a share of the delicacies or other stuff they have brought.
The jostling room is just a visible manifestation of what undertrials undergo. The following are some of the accounts this reporter heard on the trip to the jail.
Tushar Mondol, 22, a robbery accused, has spent six years in Presidency jail as an undertrial.
“The hearing is still pending. We have been visiting the court and the jail for six years,” said his mother Mangala. “The legal expenses have drained our resources. My husband is a heart patient. We can’t carry on any more.”
Kunti Devi, mother of co-accused Rahul Raut, explained the court delays: “Sometimes witnesses are absent, sometimes the investigating police officers are missing. Sometimes magistrates are on leave — or fail to turn up for some other reason.”
She said only five of the 61 witnesses had been examined.
Murder accused “Sheik Kallu” has been waiting seven years for his trial to begin. Mother Firoza Bibi claimed her son’s real name was Md Shaukat but he had been “framed” and jailed under the name of another accused.
Firoza, a resident of Nawada in Bihar, has been visiting her son in court and jail for seven years while working as a maid during her sojourns in the city.
“We are landless; my son was the breadwinner. We can’t field lawyers any more after spending thousands on their fees. A government lawyer has been appointed but he is demanding Rs 2,500 to appear for my son. How can I find that kind of money working as a domestic help?” she said.
Farida Bibi has done something that should make the law-enforcement system ponder whether it has done as much as her to uphold the law — she herself took her son to surrender before police after he fled from custody.
Farida Bibi said her son Sk Moina, 25, arrested for a cellphone theft, had escaped from the jail hospital after seeing his children crying during a visit. “I took him to the police to surrender, fearing he would be killed if the cops caught him. Since then, he has been implicated in a dacoity to prolong his detention,’’ she said. Moina has been awaiting trial for two-and-a-half years.
On this particular morning, Farida Bibi had forgotten to bring the original copy of her voter card, an absolute requirement for all visitors.
Farida Bibi broke down when she was refused a meeting with her jailed son. “I am illiterate and had no idea about the formalities. How can I go back home without giving him the food I had cooked for him?’’ she sobbed.
Some undertrials attempt suicide in frustration or, in a desperate bid for attention and help, gash themselves inside courts, hurl slippers at judges or petition for euthanasia.
Sometimes they make headlines by attempting jailbreak or rioting in prison, often getting killed and sometimes killing a jail employee or two.
Others hold hunger strikes to draw the outside world’s notice. On Sunday, political prisoners, mostly Maoists, began an indefinite hunger strike in Presidency jail demanding the release of Gour Chakroborty, the septuagenarian former CPI (Maoist) spokesperson.
Arrested from a television channel’s studio in 2009, Chakroborty has been booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and sedition charges. He is in his fourth year of detention but his trial is yet to begin, his relatives said.
Undertrials in Bengal prisons have been holding protest fasts from time to time since last year demanding speedy trial or immediate bail.
After the inmates of Krishnagar, Midnapore and Dum Dum jails, prisoners in Calcutta’s Presidency and Alipore jails refused food in phases during July and August. It has not brought any visible changes to their plight.
Around 300 undertrials, both “general” and political, joined the relay fast in August, said the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights. Family members of the Presidency inmates demonstrated outside the gates in solidarity. Since then, they have formed forums to press for the inmates’ demands — speedy trial or release on bail if trials are delayed. The political prisoners want unconditional release.
Tamal Dutta, one of the hunger-strikers, has been in jail for three years in connection with a murder, his father Tarak said. “Families like us who can’t pay enough money to the police, lawyers and court officials have little possibility of obtaining speedy justice,’’ he said.
“We will resume our protest. It’s better to die fasting than rot in jail waiting for justice,’’ said Rahul Raut, co-accused in a robbery case.