India: "they don’t even look at us as humans. How can we expect them to protect us from the virus?"

As Covid paroles end, convicts returning to complete life sentences in the same barrack recount six months of horror, delayed testing, overcrowded living conditions and degrading treatment by jail staff. Karan Tripathi reports.

Inmates from Jail Number 14 described the conditions in the jail as bheed-bichham (stuffed), jaanvaron jaisa vyavhar (animalistic behaviour), and insaan bhi nahi samajhte (inhumane).

They felt the inmates who tested positive for the virus were kept in even more deplorable conditions, evoking pity and fear among other inmates. One inmate, who started a shelter for rescued cows while out on parole, said, ‘They created a makeshift barrack for those who tested positive, which was literally a hall covered with tarpaulin. There was only one toilet in that barrack, which had to be used by all the patients. They (the staff) treated them (the patients) like caged animals. They refused to even talk to them or get close to them; food was pushed towards these inmates from outside the barrack. Nobody cared about what these patients wanted or thought about their conditions.’

The paradox of maintaining social distancing while living in an overcrowded prison was apparent early on in Jail Number 14 when the government and courts began to issue Covid-19 advisories. This jail has a total of 24 barracks, of which only 22 are used for housing inmates. The remaining two are used to organise meals.

As pressure began to mount on jail staff to implement the Covid-19 advisories, two of the already overcrowded 22 barracks were cleared and designated as ‘quarantine wards’ for inmates coming back from parole, and for new entrants. In other words, in order to implement the directions mandating quarantining of newcomers and returning inmates, jail authorities actually packed inmates meant to occupy 24 barracks in 20 barracks. The barracks were already operating at almost 30% – 50% overcrowding. The Covid guidelines just made the situation a living hell,’ one of the inmates told Article 14.

This overcrowding was further aggravated in May when multiple cases of coronavirus were reported among the undertrial inmates lodged in Rohini jail. Undertrials from Rohini who tested negative were then shifted to Jail Number 14 of Mandoli, adding to the overcrowding.

Since undertrial prisoners cannot be housed in the same barrack as convicts as per Delhi Prison Rules, two more barracks were cleared for the newly arrived undertrials. The convicts serving life sentences at Mandoli jail now had to live in only 18 barracks.

Incredibly, this tragedy continued to worsen. Even as occupancy rate in the convicts’ barracks shot up, another batch of undertrial inmates was brought in from the Rohini jail in early June, followed by yet another batch of arrivals.

By June, life in the barracks designated for convicts and for undertrials were both marred by acute overcrowding and appalling living conditions. Inmates found it difficult to even stretch a little during sleep hours; and the worsening man-toilet ratio led to further deterioration in hygiene and sanitation conditions in the barrack.

In April, according to inmates, jail authorities at Mandoli decided to implement the precautionary measures laid down in the Covid-19 guidelines.

After the first batch, sanitizers never arrived again. Guards used to siphon the sanitizer bottles and take them home; they were not even available in the jail canteen,’ said an inmate who has served 14 years in this jail.

Apart from the one-time supply of sanitizer bottles, inmates received no other support from the jail staff to help implement protective measures. Instead, implementing the precautions ended up exacerbating living conditions. In June, the recreational hour was stopped, movement was restricted, and the inmates were forced to stay inside the overcrowded barracks for longer hours.

‘There were days when they didn’t let us out at all. Even the food was brought inside the barrack, we couldn’t move out at all,’ one inmate recounted.

Then there was the rule to wear face-masks inside the barracks. One inmate said, ‘Sir, do you wear masks inside your house? No, right? The barrack is our house, how can we wear masks there? We just couldn’t breathe properly, being stuck inside the barrack for the entire day. There was no place to even sleep properly. But we had to wear masks while sleeping, we were afraid we’d catch the virus. However, some of us just couldn’t breathe, so we took them off. During the day, no one bothered to wear a mask.’

‘I was looking forward to celebrating Diwali with my family for the first time in 16 years. This order shook my conscience to the core, I just stopped eating. My family has moved from festival shopping to mourning, it’s literally like death,’ said an inmate who has found it difficult to secure an early release despite consistently maintaining a record of good conduct.

As the Special Bench of the Delhi High Court decided to put an end to its blanket order on extending the ‘Covid bail’, the inmates were in shock. The prospect of surrendering and returning to an overcrowded jail in the middle of a pandemic led them to fear for their lives. Inmates recalled the trauma of the treatment meted out to them during the period that the jail was managing the outbreak. Many found it difficult to express in words the jolt to their mental and emotional state.

‘I don’t know what to say. I can’t feel anything, I just can’t. How can they do this to us? How can they ask us to go back to that situation?’ said an inmate who was kept in solitary confinement for more than five years.

For some inmates, the emergency parole granted soon after the outbreak was the first time that they spent some time with their families. During this period, one inmate founded his own information technology startup, another established a shelter for rescued cows with the help of donations received from his neighbourhood. For them and others, the period outside jail had instilled a sense of hope and they had begun to think of a meaningful life outside a prison and of supporting their families.

These hopes were shattered by the 20 October court order.

‘How can they say that Covid is over? The numbers are rising on a daily basis, the situation is getting worse in Delhi; how can they send us back to the prison at this stage?’ said an inmate who has not received parole for the last 10 years.

Inmates expressed their despair with phrases such as: ‘I felt the ground receding from beneath by feat’; ‘I could not feel my own body, I felt the sky crashing on my head.’

Broken family ties and the failure to provide for dependents were the major concerns of inmates facing the prospect of returning to jail. Most had also been looking forward to celebrating Diwali with their family for the first time in many years.

One of the inmates said: ‘How do I explain this to my young children? I can’t even face them now. My entire family has stopped eating. We were all excited about Diwali, now everyone has slipped into mourning.’

Inmates also fear the degrading treatment inside the jails. One inmate, who has lost all hopes of getting a recommendation from the Sentence Review Board for an early release, said, ‘They don’t even look at us as humans. How can we expect them to protect us from the virus? They are the ones who brought the virus to our jail; no inmate was allowed to go out, then how did the virus invade our jail? They brought it! They’ll do it again, they look down upon us, they don’t care about us.’