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Growing Concern about Sexual Abuse in Indian Prisons

By Priyanka Yadav 

Unchi diwaron kay peechhey
Lohey ki salakhon kay ander
Rehtey hain muqaffal kuch insan
Insan jo nahin, ek ginti hain
Wo din akhir kab aayega
Jab badlega ye mausame gham
Kuch bekas roohien aas lagaye
Umar ki ghariyan ginti hein

(Locked behind high walls and iron bars
An unfortunate human world slumbers
Here they have lost even their names
And now they are just a roll of numbers
When will their season of sorrow change?
When will the locks be broken?
With every breath each of them hopes and prays
All these lost souls in agony unspoken
Counting each moment of their unending prison days)

– Justice Anand Narain Mulla (Retd), Report of the All India Committee on Jail Reforms, 1980-83

Justice Mulla’s verses from the report showcase his humanist approach towards those labelled as inhuman by the state and society: the prisoners. They are the evil-doers, agents of wrong-doing as they are likely to be seen, for it is the nature of society to perceive the world in black and white. However, what is not natural is to mete out inhumane punishment or treat them with indignity irrespective of their deeds. A life of dignity is the right of all. Article 6 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights emphasizes on the inherent right to life for every human being, which is a right from which no one can be arbitrarily deprived but shall be protected by law.

The world today is living under a pandemic where fundamental rights, especially the right to life of almost every human, globally, is at stake. In a scenario like this, Indian prisons are a worrisome site because of the underlying problem of over-crowding, lack of sanitation, space crunch and poor medical facilities. The practice of social distancing in this regard is practically problematic. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court of India did take cognizance of the problem and ordered states and union territories to form high-powered committees for determining which class of prisoners can be released on parole or interim bail. While the recommendations are being implemented by states according to their own discretion, prisons continue to remain a sensitive site in times of COVID-19.

In addition to COVID-19, there is yet another significant challenge which prisons in India and abroad face: sexual abuse. Indeed, this is the focus of this article. Sexual abuse continues to be a neglected yet ever-growing concern in Indian prisons today. Here the victim is not a woman by default but both men and women, surprisingly men being more vulnerable.

A recent thought-provoking web series named Criminal Justice streaming on the web platform Hotstar tends to largely focus on the issue of male sexual abuse in prisons. This series happens to be the immediate motivating factor behind this article. Prisons and the prison models are the gift of colonial rule. It was Lord Macaulay who first thought of reforming the Indian prison system to an extent to provide a just and humane living condition to prisoners. Another breakthrough moment in jail reforms came with the Mulla Committee Report 1983 which recommended for both reforms and rehabilitation of prisoners.

After independence, prisons became a state subject categorized under item 4 of the state list in the seventh schedule of the Indian constitution. This implies that the power to bring significant changes in matters of prison lies in the hands of individual states. Intermittent reforms have been introduced and recommendations have been made by respective states to improve the living standards of prisoners. However, nothing much has really changed. If one reads the recent book of a Tihar Jailer, Black Warrant: Confessions of a Tihar Jailer, one could get a glimpse of the gloomy life in prison, which remains hidden behind the high walls.

While reforms have taken care of most of the issues in jails (but how far they have been successfully implemented is a different discussion altogether), what has still remained untouched is the issue of sexual abuse. This is an area which is neither touched nor can be discussed considering the lack of evidence for the abuse. It is mostly the weak or the vulnerable individual who is targeted for the act of nonconsensual sex because they can be threatened by force or violence. Fear and the subsequent torture silence the inmates, compelling them to bear the abuse. Even if one does complain, would they be taken seriously? Their crime and the very fact that they have been accused of misconduct outside the prison weaken their position further.

The act of sexual abuse cannot be completely stopped as it is a matter of one’s sexual need. When an individual becomes a prisoner, he/she is by default separated from his/her natural partner or access to fulfill the sexual need. The isolation and prison conditions frustrate him/her further. A natural act of mating is not just ‘pleasure’ but a ‘want’, something which is born of necessity, leading to mental satisfaction. A study titled “Sexual Satisfaction and Mental Health in Prison Inmates” (2019) confirms that sexual satisfaction amongst prisoners is important for their mental health. It won’t be wrong to say that one will resort to force/abuse when one is not able to satisfy his/her basic needs.

Most of the times males and primarily young boys fall prey to such abuse. Women are equally vulnerable. While at times the perpetrators are inmates, jail officials commit these crimes at other times. Consider the Nirbhaya case (Delhi Gang Rape, 2016) main convict Ram Singh. According to official reports, Singh, paralyzed in one hand, committed suicide inside the prison by hanging himself from a 12-foot-tall ceiling. His father however claimed that his son was sexually abused in the prison. While I do not sympathize with Singh whose crime debased humanity, the instance is discussed just to draw attention to the fact that prisons are dark spaces, which germinate crime.

Can sexual abuse in prisons be curbed? If yes, how can they be curbed? I feel ill-equipped to answer this question. But the subject does need attention and we need to tackle this legally. A space which is otherwise a correction center for majority of criminals should not become a den for other crimes.

Priyanka Yadav, Research Scholar, Centre for Political Studies, JNU.


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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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