By Mary Ann Chacko
As part of my doctoral dissertation, I am studying a cadet program designed by the Kerala Police for school children. My field work, thus, takes me into police stations for interviews with police officers. After one such interview the police woman I had been speaking to offered to take me to visit a sub-jail adjacent to the police station. Just as we were about to go to the jail, we met an advocate, the parent of a student at the school I am conducting my fieldwork. He too was going into the jail to meet with the prisoners as part of the services offered by the Kerala State Legal Services Authority (KELSA). He offered to take me into the jail with him.
We knocked at the large gate of the Sub-Jail. An officer opened the small opening in the gate and peered at us. He knew the advocate (whom I shall call Mr. Venkat henceforth). Mr. Venkat introduced me as someone who is studying the cadet program and wanted to visit the jail. The officer closed the opening and came back after a few seconds to let us in. I am unable to describe what I felt as I stooped low and entered the jail through the small gate/wicket that is located within the larger gate. It was something I had seen so many times in movies!
I stepped on to a very clean tiled parking space. Adjacent to it was a small but well-maintained garden. It was lunch time and the enticing smell of chicken curry wafted towards us. We walked up to the officer-in-charge and Mr. Venkat once again introduced me and explained the purpose of my visit. The officer, however, told us that it will not be possible for me to visit the jail without the permission of the higher authorities. But he and the officers standing around were willing to answer any questions I had for them.
Mr. Venkat sat close by and got ready to meet the prisoners who wanted to consult him. I started chatting with the officers. I had not come prepared to ask questions as I had thought I was going on a walking tour of the jail! But suddenly I remembered a news item I had heard on TV recently about the excessive number of prisoners in Indian jails, numbers that far exceed the capacity of individual jails. So I asked the officer how many inmates were currently present in the jail. He said 88 (7 women who occupied a separate building and 81 men). When I asked next about the actual capacity of the jail, the officer became slightly suspicious. “You won’t write this anywhere, will you?” he asked. No, I said (and that is why I am not disclosing the actual location of the jail here). He said the jail had a capacity for only 27 people!
But he and his colleagues waxed eloquent on the changes that had come about in the jails. They particularly highlighted the improvements in the quantity of food given to the inmates. For example, where they were given 70 milligram of mutton previously, they now received 100 milligram. The quantity of milk that went into the tea had also been increased. One officer joked, “Once they come in they forget why they are in, in the first place.”
Before serving food to the prisoners, the officer-in-charge tasted the food, something I got to see myself. Due to safety concerns, prisoners were not allowed to accept food given by visitors. The prisoners cooked the food and cleaned the jail and its premises. Being a sub-jail located in a small area, they did not have much space for too many activities. The prisoners received a nominal salary for their services. The jail had a TV and a library.
While talking to the officer, I noticed that their shoulder badges read KJ (Kerala Jail) rather than KP (Kerala Police) as I had expected. They said that while they came under the Home Department, Kerala Prisons is a different department and its officers were purely in charge of jails. This was indeed new information for me.
After talking to the officers, I joined Mr. Venkat who was in conversation with a prisoner. He was a young man of twenty-three, who had been caught for 27 cases of theft. Items valuing up to crores of rupees had been confiscated from him and his accomplice. The latest was a theft of rubber sheets and pepper. The officers explained that the first time he had been caught, his mother had done the needful to get him out of jail and had got him married in the hope that he will turn a new leaf. But he had been caught soon after for more cases of theft. If convicted, he would get a total of 5 years in jail for different cases. Once convicted, prisoners are removed from the Sub-Jails and taken to District or Central Jails depending on the duration of their sentence.
Then the officers announced another prisoner and told the lawyer, “Here is the right person for you; he and his team arrived here yesterday.” Soon a handsome young man walked towards us. He looked desperate and utterly dejected. The officer who brought him in told us that he spoke no Malayalam. We found that he spoke only Hindi, a language Mr. Venkat was not well-versed in. So that gave me the unique opportunity to serve as translator between this prisoner and the lawyer.
This young man was a native of Uttar Pradesh. He and a team of 10 guys had come to Kerala to sell cloth. Usually they go to Chhattisgarh but because of the cold weather, they decided to come to Kerala instead. However, before boarding the train from Delhi, they felt “greedy” [his words] for some quick money and so bought 16 GB memory cards for 100 rupees each. These memory cards, he assured us, were sealed and had ‘Made in China’ etched on them. Upon reaching this town, they sold the memory cards to different shopkeepers all of whom, according to him, bought the cards only after testing them. They sold the memory cards for Rs.250 each. But the cards had stopped working once they reached the customers. The shopkeepers had then lodged a complaint with the police and the men had been caught. He, along with other team members, has been imprisoned under Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code which dealt with offences involving cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property.
In a voice heavy with desperation, the man narrated to us, “This is my first time in Kerala, first time I am buying memory cards, and first time I am in jail. Back home they have not eaten anything since knowing what happened to us. I am going to write my higher secondary exam this February. If I am put in jail, it will destroy my future.” He informed that all except one of the shopkeepers were ready to accept ‘balance’ and withdraw the case. By ‘balance’ he meant money. But one shopkeeper was adamant and wanted to see him go to jail.
The advocate explained his options to the young man, told him what he needed to get bail, and answered all his concerns very patiently. The young man asked if his case was a “normal” one or a “grievous one” and the advocate assured him that it was “normal.” He told the young man that first he should do the needful to get out on bail and then worry about the settlement. The man said that his dad and relatives were on their way to Kerala. They had someone they knew in the town, since the presence of a local person was essential to get bail.
During this and the conversations with the other prisoners, I was closely observing Mr. Venkat. There were many a time when I felt irritated by the prisoners’ statements. For instance, the one who was in jail for 27 cases of theft said that there were no witnesses! I thought the guy has some gall! But through it all Mr. Venkat never lost his cool. He was friendly and concerned throughout, telling them of all the options before them, advising them not to repeat the offences in some cases, and making numerous phone calls from his personal phone for the prisoners. He told me, “They are already broken. We cannot imagine the misery of imprisonment. Our freedom is completely taken away from us. We must not add to their misery.” On my side I had never felt as useful as I did when I was translating the prisoner’s anxieties and concerns to the lawyer.
I was grateful for an organization like KELSA (Kerala State Legal Services Authority) which, among other things, conducted legal literacy classes for students, offered legal advice to those in jail, and helped needy prisoners file and defend cases. Growing up in Kerala, I remember the lawyers were a butt of ridicule and were often referred to derogatorily as “kesilla vakkil” (a lawyer who has no cases). This, in itself, I believe, can possibly put off someone from pursuing that profession. But as I watched this lawyer, I felt an immense respect and regard for the profession, so much so that I thought if I were not a teacher, I would have been a lawyer.
Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation examines the Student Police Cadet program implemented in government schools across Kerala, India with a focus on adolescent citizenship and school-community relations. She is an Editor of Cafe Dissensus. Read more of her work on her blog, Chintavishta.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “The Indian Jewry” (Edited by Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi).