As the morning sun slowly burns their skin, fathers and wives wait in a queue with bags full of bananas, biscuits, home-made food and medicines outside the district prison in one of the most crime-prone regions in Uttar Pradesh. At the imposing gate of the Etah Jail, they get their hands stamped one after the other, to distinguish them from a convict who may try to escape.
I am let in after the sentry takes away my mobile phone and puts his signature on my palm with a red ink pen.
The Etah jail premises bear an uncanny resemblance to a small-town government school. There’s a courtyard in the centre, a garden on the right, and a row of offices, buildings and corridors in the front and on the left. Women sit in the verandah like mums waiting to take their kids home. Four men, clad in bright yellow kurtas and dhotis, keep a watch. I ask about the reason behind their colourful clothes. “All life convicts wear yellow,” a young boy with oiled hair laughingly tells me. They are the class monitors.
A woman sitting on the floor in the courtyard has been waiting for her turn to meet her husband. “Achhe aadmi hain wo. Rishtedaaron ne phasa diya. (He is a good man. Relatives conspired against him),” she tells me with conviction in her eyes.
I had to report at the office of the jail superintendent PP Singh to make sure I am not there to help a prisoner escape. “We are here to discipline and teach all the inmates, while taking care of their requirements for their own benefit,” the stout, bespectacled men tells me. He tells me that it was his initiative that has now led to the prison being the proud owner of an automatic roti machine. “Earlier, it used to take six hours to prepare the 10,000 rotis that we require everyday. Now it just needs three.” Singh says he has also arranged for casseroles to keep the rotis warm for longer, as well as from a RO purifier for clean water.
Etah jail claims to be the only district prison to have a ISO: 9001:2000 certification, with a library stocked with lakhs of books and several other facilities for the inmates. The prison likes to keep its inmates busy in cultural activities: From organising essay-writing competitions and singing contests to kavi sammelans and an annual sports week. Moreover, there are celebrations on occasions like Independence Day, Republic Day, Gandhi Jayanti and of course, the International Prisoners' Justice Day that falls on August 10. Participation is obligatory.
Singh tells me that he considers himself the guardian of all the inmates under him. When he was in Naini jail, a lawyer and his wife came there after being convicted of contempt of court. The lawyer filed a petition to be in the same cell as his wife. It was accepted. “I shifted the couple to a cell meant for convicts on death row, as it was the only separate cell. We even arranged for a curtain to safeguard their privacy,” he tells me, while planting trees in the vegetable garden that feeds all the inmates. As he holds the saplings of a jackfruit tree is his hands, his assistants click photographs from different angles.
The inmate Hall of Fame here includes politician Varun Gandhi, who came here after a provocative anti-Muslim speech, and firebrand Hindutva leader Praveen Togadia who arrived after charges of vitiating the atmosphere in Ayodhya.
Bablu Singh—a resident of Kasganj—came to the prison on charges of murder and is serving a life imprisonment. “My father was going to the market to buy vegetables when he got into an altercation with someone,” he says. “That guy abused and beat up my old man. I got angry.” Singh, who has been convicted of shooting the guy, now works at the computer department of the prison and shows off his Microsoft Excel skills with pride. “I keep myself busy to not miss my family.”
Pradeep Raghunandan is the president of Rashtriya Yuva Shakti, an organisation which works for prison reforms. He has been working with the inmates of the Etah jail for years. “Most people are very surprised when I tell them more than 90% of jail inmates are, in fact, not criminals,” he says. “It is often just a moment of temper that can get you incarcerated for the rest of your life.”
According to Raghunandan, the prisoners at the Etah jail can be divided into three groups. The first is the one that hails from a family of criminals. “The son of a dacoit would often be a dacoit.” Those in the second group are what he calls ‘political prisoners’. “If you are an enemy with a powerful politician or a strongman, he can get your name in any criminal case”. The third category, in which the vast majority falls, are either “victims of circumstances, first-time offenders, or the ones who lost their temper at the wrong time.”
Ramdev Shastri, 48, a resident of Aliganj, belongs to the third category. He came to Etah after he killed the lover of his younger brother’s wife. “The boy came to our house in the dead of the night,” he says. “I caught them making love. The confrontation went out of hand. It was my brother’s wife who testified against me in the court.”
To survive his life sentence, Shastri has turned to poetry. He has managed to get a book published Vedna ke Swar, which features his poetic letters to his mother, wife and children.
The first poem in the book is titled Apradh ke Dushparinam (The Ill-effects of Crime). It’s a message to potential criminals.
“If you do crime, your family pays,
You are a mute witness to miseries
Of your home, and tears of a wife,
Your emotionless life gets sold, your honour is cheap
Death is bad, of course, but it’s still better than prison.”
Shastri says he considers his jail time as time spent in school. “The jail is my paathshaala (classroom), where I have learnt the biggest lessons of my life.”
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