Most of us, including me, have grown up on not-so-pleasant fodder regarding prisons and jails. In fact, till recently, I was not even aware of the difference between a prison and a jail. Th ese impressions were mostly a function of a multitude of unfortunate, but high profi led media coverage we have consumed over the years – be it regarding the blinding of prisoners in Bhagalpur, or the whole sordid aff air 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 we undertook a twoday visit to famous (or infamous) Tihar Jail. Tihar’s in-charge, Ms. Vimla Mehra, DG Prisons, facilitated this rare, unfettered and, from the perspective of prison authorities, surprise visit for us. We were allowed to freely photograph the prison facilities (or lack of them), the prisoners’ lifestyle, and the conduct of the jail authorities. Here is a sharing of our experience
1. While there is a high peripheral wall visible to the outside world, there is an equally high inner perimeter wall with guard towers manned by armed guards, that separates the free-movement areas from the areas of confi nement – a key reason for only a few having managed to escape from here.
2. Th ere are 9 separate jails inside Tihar (not counting the one in Rohini), of which one is specifi cally designated for women, and another for young adults (between the age of 18 and 21 years). Upon entering one of these jails aft er being frisked, we were pleasantly surprised to fi nd murals painted along the passage.
3. Close to the entry, the washing and bathing activities of prisoners were in progress.
4. Another surprise sight for us was the ‘Prison without Bars,’ or ‘Semiopen Jail,’ inside the prison complex. Th e inmates have to earn their right to be here. Ms. Vimla Mehra (DG Prisons) had initiated this experiment.
5. Th e inmates’ family and friends have visitation rights. Th e ‘Mulaqat Kaksh’ (Meeting Room) is where this happens.
6. We were 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 spoke to us. Here are some glimpses of those meets.
7. Besides the general routine outlined above, some inmates have also chosen to work in one of the many ‘factories’ running inside Tihar. Th e produce is varied – from furniture to hand-made paper, from breads and biscuits to Petha, from shirts and dresses to handicraft s. In fact, all these are marketed in and around Tihar under the brand name ‘TJ’s’.
8. Th e inside environs were not unpleasant, to say the least. Lot of greenery and open spaces.
9. While there, we wondered how the inmates would be spending their time. Th e answer stared us in the face.
10. Each jail in Tihar has a special ‘high-security’ ward designated for dangerous criminals and repeat off enders.
11. Th e inmates can only claim the wages earned on their release. While in jail, they may use these funds through the TJ Debit Card for making purchases in dry and wet canteens, and the food carts in the premises.
12. Everyday, approx. 7,000 kg of wheat fl our is used to make ‘rotis’ for the 14,000+ inmates. Th at’s not all, similar quantities of ‘quality controlled’ vegetables and other ingredients are also needed daily. And the inmates themselves do the cooking.
13. Inmates’ health is also adequately looked aft er. Th ere are dispensaries and clinics inside each jail in Tihar.
14. Secularism rules, even in Tihar. Our visit was during Ramzan and the Muslim inmates were engaged in their mid-day Namaaz, and a Satsang was in progress in the women’s jail.
15. Women inmates with young children have a crèche facility for their kids. In a way, we saw ‘life as usual’ there.
16. It isn’t ‘all work and no play’ for the inmates. Th ere are myriad activities they can 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% – all thanks to the jail authorities! Honestly, we came back from Tihar duly chastised for having harboured misconceptions. We were mesmerised during our visit. And the mystique persists.