At 6 a.m., we have to go outside. Birendra is in charge of Dormitory 4. I stay close to him, and the others still cannot speak to me. There are no uniforms in sight; no guards, no police. I remember the advice I received during preliminary custody: get close to the detainees that manage the library. It just so happens that Birendra takes me there. It’s where every new arrival gets interviewed. He asks me to enter a tiny, windowless room. I’m huddled in there with five guys. I recognize some of the faces from those on the welcoming committee last night. The one who speaks to me is the one who took me to the showers. He introduces himself:
“I am Padam daï. Daï means ‘big brother’. We are prisoners doubling as guards. There are fifteen of us working here in the prison to maintain order and ensure that everything runs properly.”
-But aren’t there any guards?
-Aside from us, no.
I am stunned. In 2009, the prison personnel in Nepal amounted to 621; 600 in administration and 21 medical personnel. No guards. Instead, prisoner/guards, monitors. The system seems to date back to the early 20th century, when prisons first appeared. Padam lays out the rules:
“The government pays each detainee 45 rupees and 1½ pounds of boiled rice per day. We, the daï, take from that 30 rupees a day to buy equipment and pay the workers – kitchen stuff, dishes, etc. What’s left is 15 rupees per day or 450 rupees per month per person.”
It becomes clear to me later what a meager income this is. Some detainees are helped out by family members who bring them money at visits. For the others, it’s tough.
When Birendra inspects the envelope containing the letter from my parents, he takes out the family photo, and when I see it, I can’t help but burst into tears. He comforts me in his way:
*“Get a hold of yourself. I’m here four years and I have another three to go. There are guys who are in for 10 or 15 years…”
I consider my misfortune in relative terms, but I also come to the realization that,
I am in the midst of not only delinquents but also hardened criminals; small-time offenders and hard-core outlaws, hash smokers and murderers, existing side by side. We are not housed separately. No matter the place we came from, we are all in the same boat now.
While I am standing against the wall, the prison seems smaller now than last night. It is in fact a concrete slab of about 100 feet x 50 feet, about less than 5,000 square feet, hardly any larger than a public swimming pool. In this yard there is a central block with two dormitories on the ground floor and two more on the floor above.
At 6 p.m., when the prisoners are in the yard, there is a sudden shout, repeated loudly: “Kōṭhā kōṭhā! Kōṭhā kōṭhā!” Outside, the police have signaled to the prisoner/guards at the gate to relay the message to the inside. Siddartha, who is walking next to me, explains that kōṭhā means “room” in Nepalese, and that we all have to get back to our dormitories. Within a minute, the alleys and yards are empty. Siddartha goes up to Dormitory 2, I go to 4, so we are separated. We wish each other good night. Inside, Birendra asks me, “Do you know how to say ‘one’ in Nepalese?”
-Yes I answer, Ek.
-OK, so tonight you will start the count when I signal you to.
He goes out, then comes back.
-I shout, Eeeek!
Just as they did yesterday, number two 2 follows suit and so on down the line. It seems to be customary to shout one’s number as loud as possible, like a wild beast. Sometimes you can hear the shouts from other dormitories along the other courtyard, over the high walls. That’s how I became acquainted with my dorm mates when I arrived; as if a new player on the All Blacks was greeted by his teammates with a Haka. When the count is finished, a plain-clothes cop locks us in until the next morning at 6. It’s a semi-open prison: 12 hours in the common facilities and 12 hours in the dormitory.