When a pregnant 26-year-old walked into Byculla women’s jail in 2013, accused of being a Naxalite, the other inmates cautioned her to be extremely careful and not draw the ire of the prison officials. Many women had been beaten mindlessly, Shital Sathe was told, including pregnant ones. She wouldn’t be given nutritious food and she’d be lucky if they took her to hospital before her water broke. “They wait till the last minute. Many women have given birth on the way to hospital, in the police van,” she was told.

Four years later, having witnessed first-hand the many shades of prison life, Sathe is least surprised at the fate of Manjula Shetye, the 35-year-old inmate who was allegedly killed by six Byculla prison staffers last month — over a few eggs and bread loaves. What surprises her, though, is that the alleged murder became public knowledge.

During the months she spent at the women’s jail, Sathe came close to being similarly assaulted several times, but was spared because she always put up a fight. Her arrest had been widely reported in the media, and that put the jail staff on guard. Being a political prisoner helped, too, and her resistance created awareness among other inmates about basic human rights.

“When they beat you in prison, it’s not just a stand-off between you and a woman officer. It’s four to five of them versus you. The beating usually takes place in a closed room. But if they want to make an example of you and scare the other inmates, then they assault you in the open. I never witnessed a beating as merciless as Manjula’s, probably because I was in jail only a few months, but other inmates have told me of such beatings that had taken place before,” said Sathe.

She is inclined to believe the eyewitnesses’ version that Shetye threatened to expose the malpractices in the jail, leading to her custodial torture. What’s exceptional here is that the matter caught the attention of the media and the public.

“In press images, I saw the women inmates who were protesting Manjula’s death climb atop the main barrack of the prison and call for help. It is not easy to break the security of the main barrack and reach the roof. Imagine the ire that her death must have sparked. It brought out every frustration pent up in those inmates, and the manifestation was for all of us to see, take note of, and be alarmed,” said Sathe.

Pradip Bhalekar, a former inmate of Arthur Road jail, has been fighting for prisoners’ rights through his NGO, Manav Adhikar Forum. According to data he accessed through a Right to Information (RTI) query, 92 inmates died between 2015 and May 2017 in four Maharashtra prisons — Arthur Road, Thane Central, Byculla women’s jail, and Kolhapur Central. All these deaths were recorded as either suicides or from natural causes.

Bhalekar disputes this, especially the claims of suicides. He came to know of one such “suicide” in October last year through one of the inmates he is in touch with through his NGO.

“This was an undertrial who refused to do the labour work the jail staff assigned him — he knew that as an undertrial he didn’t need to work. After several days of tension, the prison staff dragged him out of his barrack and beat him in front of the other prisoners. At the time of bandi — shutting of the barracks in the evening, they counted the prisoners and found one less. They searched the prison, and found the man hanging in a remote corner by means of a bedsheet. The other inmates felt sure he had been killed and then hanged. His eyes weren’t protruding, his tongue wasn’t out — no obvious signs (of death by hanging). Their suspicion is not unwarranted. They’ve all seen or heard of such cases before,” alleged Bhalekar.

Systemic neglect

Manisha Tulpule, a lawyer who has visited the Byculla women’s jail and other prisons in the State on work, said “third degree” torture is not uncommon, and even women undergo it. Such instances don’t come to light as the entire judicial apparatus is compromised, she alleged.

Monitoring systems are in place to prevent such torture, but only in name, she said. To illustrate, she pointed to the monthly meetings that are mandated for officers from all districts to brainstorm for ways to improve the prison system. However, senior officers often skip these meetings, she claimed, and instead send lower-rung officers to represent them.

“There is no seriousness,” she said, “It’s not just about custodial torture. Prison life is riddled with several problems. In women’s prisons, even the basic facilities are not in place — sanitary napkins, clean food, especially for pregnant women, and recreational facilities for the children of women inmates. Locked up with their mothers, the children — aged not more than six — are fed the same abysmal food. It is unacceptable that these innocent kids are being treated like prisoners, deprived of a regular childhood.”

Queried about the allegations of custodial torture, Bhushan Kumar Upadhyay, director general of police, prisons, said, “There may be some incidents, but it is not rampant. As for food and other basic facilities, they are provided as per norm.” He added that each month a judge visits every prison in the State to ensure the inmates are provided all the amenities they are entitled to.

Reform, under the present circumstances, appears a difficult proposition, said Tulpule, because authorities claim the prisoners are provided every facility prescribed by law, even more. However, the ground reality tells a different story.

“For example, they claim that every prisoner who cannot afford legal representation is provided with a lawyer. But you know that so many undertrials are languishing in jails as they don’t even know they have a right to free legal help,” said Tulpule.

The biggest problem in women’s prisons, according to former inmate Sathe, is the lack of medical help. At the Byculla women’s jail, the doctor is male, which makes many women hesitate to approach him, especially for gynaecological issues, she said. “Tests like sonography, no matter how necessary, are near-impossible to get. Forget medical help, as a pregnant woman, I had to fight for a month to get an egg included in my meal, which is actually a basic item allowed as per rules.”

Former inmates and experts familiar with the situation cite this lack of basic amenities for the thriving black markets inside prisons. Every facility, every luxury is available in prison for a price, and at a premium too. And those who cannot “buy” are fated to remain deprived of even the most basic facilities, or beaten for demanding them.

Criminal VIPs

“The golden rule in prisons is to keep your mouth shut,” says another former inmate, declining to be named. “If you complain against malpractices, they are going to come after you. They’ll pick on you for the slightest of things, and the torture is physical as well as mental. There are some officers who are nice, but most others are sellouts. In retrospect, I feel that these officers cannot be blamed either. Every other prison staffer is making money from the inmates around them. Why shouldn’t they too? Prisoners, anyway, are considered the dirt of society.”

Bhalekar said another area of rampant corruption in prisons revolves around the mulaqats — visits from the prisoner’s family.

“Many inmates complain that against the allotted 20 minutes for the visit, relatives are forced to leave within minutes. But for a VIP inmate or other privileged inmates who work as informants for the jail staff, or do their personal chores, there is no time limit. It may even extend to an hour and a half. This is true for food quality too. Inmates who cannot pay off the officers are served inedible meals — brown water for tea and dal, and black water laced with stones for rice,” said Bhalekar.

He has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against actor Sanjay Dutt’s early release from Yerwada Central Prison in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case. The State, on direction from the Bombay HC, recently replied that the actor’s early release was as per rules. Further proceedings are scheduled for early August.

Bhalekar has also filed an application in the Bombay HC against the six jail staff members accused of murdering Shetye, alleging that they have tampered with the evidence, including her post-mortem report. “I have no faith in prison authorities,” he said.

Shetye’s older brother, Anant, too believes he lost his sister because she raised her voice against corrupt prison practices. A school teacher by profession, Shetye had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 2004 on the charge of abetting the suicide of her sister-in-law in the late ’90s. Owing to her exemplary behaviour, she was made jail warden at the Yerwada Central Prison, where she was initially lodged. She was only a few months from completing her sentence when she was moved to Byculla jail.

“Even after she was assaulted brutally, they did not have the humanity to get her medical help. She went to the bathroom and didn’t return. When other inmates went to check, she was found collapsed, probably dead. We came to know she was killed only because the other inmates created a furore. Like my sister, there may be so many Manjulas who have been assaulted as mercilessly, and left to die, as casually,” said Anant, a college professor.

Puja Changoiwala is a journalist and the author of The Front Page Murders: Inside the Serial Killings that Shocked India