Most of us, including me, have grown up on a not-so-pleasant fodder regarding prisons and jails. In fact, till recently, I was not even present to the difference between a prison and a jail. These impressions were mostly a function of a multitude of unfortunate, but high profiled media coverage we have consumed over the years -- be it regarding the blinding of prisoners in Bhagalpur, or the whole sordid affair of Soni Sori's abuse in Raipur (Chhattisgarh) Jail. To boot, the Bollywood's portrayal of a jail acts as a further reinforcement of these impressions.
It is with this mindset that I undertook a two-day visit to Delhi's infamous Tihar Jail. Tihar's in-charge at that time, Ms. Vimla Mehra, DG Prisons, facilitated this rare, unfettered and, from prison authorities' perspective, surprise visit for me. I freely photographed the prison facilities (or lack of them), the prisoners' lifestyle and the conduct of the jail authorities. Here is a round up of my findings.
1. While there is a high peripheral wall visible to the outside world, there is an equally high inner perimeter wall with guard towers housing armed guards, that separates the free-movement areas from the areas of confinement -- a key reason for only a few having managed to escape from here.
2. There are nine separate jails inside Tihar (not counting the one in Rohini), of which, one is specifically designated for women and another, for young adults (between the age of 18 and 21 years). After being frisked, upon entering one of these jails, I was pleasantly surprised to find murals painted along the passage.
3. Another pleasant surprise was to see a 'Prison without Bars' or 'Semi-open Jail' inside the Tihar premises. The inmates have to earn their right to be here. Ms. Vimla Mehra (DG Prisons) had initiated this experiment.
4. Close to the entry, the washing and bathing activities of prisoners were in progress.
5. The inmates' family and friends have visitation rights. The 'Mulaqat Kaksh' (Meeting Room) is where this happens.
6. The insides environs were pleasant, to say the least. Lot of greenery and open spaces.
7. I was extended the privilege of an unrestricted interaction with the inmates. For the same, the inmates gathered around in the common areas of their respective jails and met me.
8. While there, I wondered how the inmates would be spending their time. The answer stared me in the face.
9. Besides the general routine outlined above, some inmates have also chosen to work in one of the many 'factories' running inside Tihar. The produce is varied -- from furniture to hand-made paper, from breads and biscuits to Petha, from shirts and dresses to handicrafts. In fact, all these are marketed in and around Tihar under the brand name 'TJ's'.
10. The wages earned by the inmates can only be claimed when they are released. While in jail, they may use these funds through the TJ Debit Card for making purchases in dry/wet canteens and the food cart in the premises.
11. Everyday, approx. 7,000 kg of wheat flour is used to feed the 14,000 inmates. That's not all, similar quantities of 'quality controlled' vegetables and other ingredients are also needed daily. And the inmates themselves do the cooking.
12. Inmates' health was also adequately looked after. There are dispensaries and clinics inside each jail in Tihar.
13. Secularism rules, even in Tihar. My visit was during Ramzan and the Muslim inmates were engaged in their mid-day Namaaz. A Satsang was in progress in women's prison.
14. Women inmates with young children have a crèche facility for their kids. In a way, we saw 'life as usual' there.
15. Each jail in Tihar has a special 'high-security' ward designated for dangerous and repeat criminals.
16. It isn't 'all work and no play' for the inmates. There are myriad activities they pursue to gainfully utilise their time. Some pursue studies, while others are involved with RJ-ing on TJ FM, painting, reading, growing herbs, tending domesticated cattle, playing music, bringing up pets like rabbits and ducks, etc. An interesting aside -- the literacy rate amongst inmates is 100%!
Honestly, I came back from Tihar duly chastised for having harboured the misconceptions. I was mesmerised during my visit. And the hangover persists.
Photographs taken and provided by Ajay Sood (travelure).