“Coming out was like seeing the light after being in the dark for so long,” said Ram Shetke,* who was serving a life sentence in the district prison of Latur, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
Shetke was convicted for killing his son-in-law, an allegation he denies. His son-in-law had allegedly set himself on fire but his in-laws pegged Shetke as the top suspect in the “murder.” He had been behind bars for about three years.
On March 24, the Supreme Court (SC) ordered all Indian states and Union Territories to decongest jails to avoid a possible threat of COVID-19 transmission.
The top court had suggested the release of those convicted or undertrial for one offence, for which the sentence is up to seven years.
Other parameters included the nature and severity of the offence or its duration. Shetke was one of the approximately 61,100 inmates deemed fit to be released during this decongestion drive.
In the next few months, Shetke found himself grappling with the strange new definition of freedom. He was out of the proverbial darkness of the prison but was also jobless. Before jail, he was a tailor working in other people’s shops.
Shetke recalled how people hounded him when he was released and returned home. “They called me a gunda (a thug),” he said. “Forget about giving me a job. They didn’t even come near me.”
When the coronavirus outbreak hit India earlier this year, it brought to the fore India’s many institutional and societal problems. India is the third worst-affected country in the world, only behind the United States and Brazil, with 3.6 million confirmed cases of infections. India’s congested 1,350 prisons across the country house around 478,600, according to 2019 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data—18.5 percent more than the total capacity.
As of August 26, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative had documented 6,621 infections and at least 15 deaths across India’s prisons.
Those who managed to get out, however, were faced with more complexities.
A few prisoners VICE News spoke with over the phone talked about the societal stigma that followed upon their release. Saurabh Roy,* a prisoner on interim bail from the Osmanabad district of Maharashtra, said that he managed to get a job in his hometown after being released on March 31. He did not tell his employer about his prison background.
“If I had told them about my past, they would not have given me that job, no matter how good I was at it,” he said.
Ravindra B Vaidya, the founder-president of Voluntary Action for Rehabilitation and Development (VARHAD), works for the welfare of prisoners and their families in the Vidarbha district of Maharashtra. He told VICE News that since the pandemic started, VARHAD has helped over 500 inmates in prison and detention centres on emergency bail reach their homes, get food and re-enter society. It was not easy.
“Many freed prisoners were not allowed to enter their villages. They were forced to quarantine in open fields for 14 days, while some were forced to live in abandoned school premises,” said Vaidya. “There were others we couldn’t help so they walked, hitchhiked or cycled hundreds of kilometres home.”
Prison reforms social workers say that the stigma towards prisoners is deep-rooted. Oftentimes, social workers had to be mediators between prisoners and their families.
“They’re seen as people who’ve done something wrong,” Chandrakant Shinde, a social worker at Prayas NGO, told VICE News. Prayas is a field action project that works for legal rights and social re-entry of prisoners. The organisation helped make arrangements for both Roy and Shelke.
Shinde added that rehabilitation has always been challenging. “Apart from the stigma, there’s the problem of them going back to bad circles because nobody accepts them in society,” he said. “Many are school dropouts and unskilled, who can’t get a job. There’s also a correlation between crime and drug addiction.”
The latest NCRB prison data showed that 7,394 prisoners had mental illness, while 116 died by suicide, as of December 2019.
Shinde said that in some prisons, court orders had to be carried out within 24 hours. This left little time for the jail administration to make travel arrangements. He also recounted the experience of one prisoner from Maharashtra’s Raigarh district, who alternated between walking and hitchhiking his way home, which was over 200 kms away from the prison.
Madhurima Dhanuka, the programme head of Prison Reforms Programme, CHRI, told VICE News that among other factors, the stigma is rooted in society’s “general lack of understanding of crime, person, reform and reintegration.”
“Also, the depiction of prisons and prisoners in media — television, movies et cetera—often does more harm than good, and continues to reinforce long-standing notions regarding prisoners,” she said.
The SC order for decongestion does not include foreigners. Ajay Verma, a Delhi-based advocate for prison rights, told VICE News that is something they are trying to change. “Foreigners are in jail even for petty offences, or for offences punishable for up to four to five years,” he said. “Many are sick, some are in prison, while others are in detention centres and stuck in limbo with their deportation.”
The decongestion has not stopped prisons from becoming COVID-19 hotspots, however. Maharashtra—the worst-hit in India during the pandemic—released over 10,000 inmates. Yet over 1,000 prisoners and more than 300 jail staff tested positive across state prisons, as of August 18. Earlier this month, the central jail in the south Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram reported more than 350 positive cases and a death within just a week.
Organisations such as CHRI and the National Forum for Prison Reforms have made recommendations and suggestions for the release of prisoners. Many activists observed that the general lack of transparency in Indian prisons has extended to pandemic times as well. Social workers said that families did not know about the order, or how their kin is faring inside the facilities.
Prisoner Shetke said that a fellow prisoner, whose family could not come to receive him, fell sick and suffered paralysis on one side of his body. Jail officials called social workers from Prayas to take him to a government hospital. “Because of the pandemic, no one came near him,” said Shetke.
“I went to take care of him at the hospital. He did not make it.”
*Names have been changed for subjects’ protection.
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