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How to smuggle a bathtub into prison

| Updated on: Jun 10, 2016
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From cream biscuits and pani puri to mobile phones and hard drugs, everything is within reach — for a price — for those put away in Mumbai jails. In this thriving grey market, prison officials are hand in glove with the convicts, including hardened gangsters

Raghav was new to prison and couldn’t fathom why a fellow prisoner had swallowed a plastic capsule with water, even as the escorting policemen looked away. Seated in a police van on their return to a Mumbai prison after a court hearing, Raghav had observed the fellow inmate emptying a pack of 10 tablets into a plastic pouch and sealing it using a lighter before swallowing the whole. Only later did he learn that the fellow would pass it along with stools the following morning and consume the pills — anxiety suppressants — one at a time to get high. As for the cop’s ‘cooperation’, that had been purchased too.

“Drugs are one of the most commonly smuggled items in prison,” says Raghav (name changed), who has spent two years in a Mumbai jail. “But any item can be smuggled into prisons as easily — the more illegal, the better. I know of a gangster who had a bathtub in his cell. He would order his cronies to ready a bubble bath and loll in it all day. Bottles of ghee and butter were visible in his cell, which even had an LED television.” Didn’t the policemen pose a problem? Not at all. Their palms had been greased well. “In fact, they arranged for the bathtub and the entertainment unit,” he adds.

Former inmates of Mumbai prisons do, however, attest to the extremely high levels of security. The many layers of checks begin with doorframe metal detectors and handheld metal detectors, all the way to manual frisking. Prisoners returning from court hearings or medical checks are made to jump and squat to ensure that any item they may be attempting to smuggle in, especially in their anus, falls out. “Even soaps are cut into two to check if anything is concealed in them,” says another former inmate. But all the security and surveillance count for nothing in the face of cash.

“There are two ways in which you can smuggle things inside. If it’s a small item, you can pay the policemen to allow you to bring it in. They will ignore the detector’s beeps and ignore the ganja they find in your pocket. But for bigger items like bathtubs or, say, alcohol, you’ll have to bribe the cops to arrange for them,” says Raghav.

Meera Borwankar, formerly Maharashtra’s additional director general of police (prisons) for three years until October 2015, admitted that many of the state’s prisons were “porous”. Even though surveillance infrastructure is in place, often the jail staff become compromised. This is all the more common when the prisoners belong to organised crime syndicates, the underworld or are habitual offenders, she says.

“This problem is prevalent all over the country. During my three-year tenure, I supervised no less than 50 departmental enquiries against police escorts and jail staff for facilitating illegal items to prisoners, and no fewer than 20 policemen were suspended, including a superintendent of police. You can change the staff periodically to control this menace, punish the policemen, even transfer them to a different department. But no matter what you do, there are always some black sheep,” Borwankar says.

In July 2013, Devendra Jagtap, an aide of the gangster Chhota Shakeel, managed to sneak in a country-made revolver at the Taloja jail, in Navi Mumbai, and shot at Abu Salem, another gangster accused in the Mumbai 1993 blasts case. Salem survived, but four policemen were suspended over the murder attempt.

“An associate of Jagtap had flung the revolver over the prison wall after fixing a date and time for it,” says assistant commissioner of police Praful Bhosale, who arrested the associate a few days after the attack.

There was widespread shock that a weapon could make its way into a central prison so easily. However, former inmates and jail officials alike contend that smuggled weapons are a rarity compared to the other items in demand — namely, drugs, phones and cash.

Stash behind bars

Marijuana, MDMA (commonly known as ‘ecstasy’), ‘meow meow’, anxiety suppressants and sleeping pills are the most commonly abused drugs in prisons.

“They’re smuggled in anuses, underwear pockets and sometimes an entire consignment is swallowed with water. But if the prisoner has enough money, he can walk into the jail with the packet in his hand or ask the jail staff to make the drugs available to him. I once saw a prisoner smoking a marijuana roll while a policeman stood outside his cell. All that the cop told him was, ‘Arre, itni toh izzat rakh meri. Mere saamne toh mat fook (Show some respect, at least don’t smoke in my presence).’ The prisoner, of course, smoked away without a pause,” says a former inmate.

In January this year, two undertrials were booked for smuggling 15 gm of marijuana into Thane jail. The contraband had been stuffed into their private parts. While such arrests are rare, what is not so rare is the presence of prisoners who are perennially high on drugs. They spend most of the day sleeping, and in prison jargon, they’re called ‘turkeys’.

Many blame the dehumanising surroundings for pushing prisoners to drugs. “We’re dumped like cattle inside an overcrowded hole. Arthur Road jail, for example, has capacity for 804 inmates, but houses 2,700. Toilets are badly maintained. Most inmates complain of skin rashes, itching, and boils. Those with contagious diseases like tuberculosis are housed with healthy ones. Plus, the food is abysmal... with drugs like MDMA, even your hunger remains suppressed,” says another former inmate.

Direct line to perdition

Crime bosses serving time find ways to keep their underworld businesses running from their cells, lending an unexpected twist to the nomenclature ‘cell phone’. According to Maharashtra police, tens of prisoners are caught using cell phones in its jails every year. Not a few of these devices are in the hands of the Mumbai mafia, which finds them handy to make extortion calls.

Smuggled phones are equally in demand among prisoners suffering the pain of separation from loved ones. “I couldn’t afford a phone inside prison,” says Raghav, “But during a major festival, I called my family to wish them. It cost me ₹500 for a minute.”

Asked how inmates charge their phones as prison cells have no plug points, Raghav says, “That is a problem, yes. Even the television is connected via a wire that leads to the main lobby, completely out of our reach. So to charge phones, prisoners usually remove the rubber coating from the television cord, match the plus and minus, and use this supply for their chargers.”

In December 2014, 22 phones were confiscated at Thane jail during a surprise check, while a month before that, four phones were seized at Arthur Road. Jail officers say that phones are usually smuggled in cavities hollowed out in court files, which are normally not scanned, or in cavities in shoes. During one surprise search at a city prison, several files and shoes with cavities were seized. The other popular method, of course, involves flinging phones over the prison wall. Here the devices are usually wrapped in packets of food or clothing.

Inspector general of police (prisons) for Maharashtra Bipin Kumar Singh admits that smuggled phones have been uncovered during surprise checks, but asserts that the number of offences has reduced in the recent past. “In order to curb these illegal activities, there are hundreds of CCTV cameras mounted in prisons across Maharashtra; Arthur Road alone has 100 to 125 cameras. Plus, we have surprise crackdowns all the time.”

Former inmates, however, point out that even these jhadti (prison jargon for surprise checks) are highly compromised. “If you pay the staff enough, they will warn you about an upcoming check. It’s only when policemen, other than jail officials, conduct searches that phones are found. During my two years in a Mumbai prison, only two such searches were conducted by Mumbai crime branch officers, leading to the seizure of phones,” says a former inmate.

Money talks prison lingo

The third most smuggled item, cash virtually serves as an “elixir” for the inmates who have it. No creature comfort remains beyond their reach, if they can only find ways to cough up the money for it. Under law, each prisoner is allowed to spend only ₹2,000 per month, and that too only for purchases from the prison canteen. But jail staff appears more than willing to bend this rule, for a price, which is usually exorbitant. “For example, they would get us two eggs every day, which is not part of the prison menu. That used to cost us ₹3,000 every month. Outside this would cost only ₹300, at ₹5 an egg. But prisons have premium rates,” says a former inmate.

Another adds, “If you have cash, you can get drugs, phones, weapons, mattresses, chocolate cream biscuits… anything you want. Money makes the cops look away, it even makes them arrange these things illegally for you. I once saw an undertrial gangster having pani puri with a lady just outside the prison. Unescorted! In fact, it’s not just the cops who are running businesses in prisons, but inmates as well. Many of them sell daily use items — biscuits, chips, alcohol, medicines, soaps, shaving razors — at exorbitant rates after arranging for them through cops. They sell a cigarette pack for ₹500, which costs ₹220 outside. A ketchup sachet costs ₹200, when it is ₹20 outside.”

Cash is usually smuggled in after court hearings or medical visits. Other methods include arranging for money orders; or family members pass on the cash through a jail staff outside prison or directly to the inmate during a visit. In every instance, inmates say, cops charge a commission of 30 per cent to look the other way.

“I had ₹7,000 saved with the prison canteen during my imprisonment. But on release, I was allowed to leave with only ₹5,000. The jail staff at the exit took their 30 per cent,” says a former inmate.

Even those who do not have money find ways of making some to be able to buy extra comforts. One way is to become “adopted” by the wealthier ones. “Every prison has its mafias,” says a former inmate, “And if you work for these mafias — wash and iron their clothes, heat their food, massage their feet — they take care of your expenses. Whether it is butter chicken or cocaine, they’ll have it arranged for you. Then there are those who don’t have money, but extort it from the physically weaker inmates. ‘Protection money’, they term it, to keep them unhurt in prison. Further, some prisoners strike deals with the poorer inmates, giving money in exchange for promised assistance in future crimes.”

According to Borwankar, the only solution to the smuggling menace is to monitor jail staff and use videoconferencing instead of producing undertrials physically before courts. Most of the smuggling happens when undertrials are escorted to courts for hearings or for medical examinations. The contraband is passed on by friends, relatives or gang members. “Since most such criminals are high-risk ones, there is a need to change their escorts constantly. An even better solution is to restrict their movement completely. Last year, I had proposed that such offenders should be produced before courts via videoconferencing… it will not hamper proceedings in any way,” she says.

IG (Prisons) Singh insists that every kind of surveillance and security apparatus is in place already. “There are constant surprise checks; even the jail staff is subject to such searches. There have been smuggling instances, but they are on a decline,” he claims.

Former inmates rubbish the surveillance apparatus as a sham, in the face of the jail staff’s voracious appetite for money. “I laugh when people call prisons correctional institutions,” says one. “These are places where honesty comes to die. If a virtuous man comes to prison, he’ll become a criminal. If a criminal comes here, he’ll become even more unapologetic. That’s all these barracks can guarantee — more crime.”

Puja Changoiwala is a Mumbai-based journalist and author

Published on January 20, 2018

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