Nepal : under one world roof, a jail without guards (I)
— Published 14 November 2017.
In 2015, Renaud Meysonnier set off on a trip from France to Asia. A few months later, at the border between India and Nepal, he was arrested for using counterfeit currency, and sentenced to a year in prison. Renaud spent one month in the small Nepalese prison of Bhairahawa, and was subsequently transferred to the prison in Kathmandu, the capital. This is his story.
I have to share a single mattress with a teenager and a guy who has long curly hair. We lie down head to toe on our sides. Everybody sleeps three to a mattress.
I have to take my shoes off before going in. Once inside, I go through a dormitory. At the entrance to a second dormitory, a guy is waiting, smiling. Behind him, men are sitting cross-legged on mattresses on the floor. The guy tells me to sit next to an amputee. The prisoners are lined up, sitting about a foot and a half apart. They are silent, eyeing me with a mixture of respect and curiosity. I do the same. The dormitory is not a cell, but a long rectangular room about 30 feet by 10 feet. It is not as uncomfortable as preliminary custody was; there are ceiling fans and a TV. The room is bright and rather colorful. After a few minutes, the fellow who is standing says something, and another guy brutally breaks the silence by shouting:
The guy to the right of him shouts, “DUUUEEE!”
The next one, “TIIIIN!”
I understand then that the thirty or so prisoners are doing their count. When it’s over, the one standing up talks for a few minutes. Then the detainees suddenly start moving, noisily get up off the floor, and interact with each other. The standing guy beckons to me and says, “The others are not allowed to speak to you. Even if they do, you are not to answer, understand?”
At 10 p.m. we hang mosquito nets over the mattresses. I have to share a single mattress with a teenager and a guy who has long curly hair. We lie down head to toe on our sides. Everybody sleeps three to a mattress.
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.
"We are prisoners doubling as guards"
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.
"That’s what we call the P-Gate, the prison’s antechamber. There are 120 of us in this yard which was designed to hold 40."
The prison never sleeps
When we leave the dormitories, some brush their teeth, some get on line for the showers or toilets, and some wander around the central block like pilgrims at Mecca. I am actually surprised that I am among the latter group whereas just the day before I was shocked by this circumambulation. Time goes by fast in prison. As soon as we are out, the daï lead the way. Always counter-clockwise is the circulation here. It’s the social order of things. At the front is the number 1 prisoner, the chowkidar, meaning “jailer” or “guard”. His name is Bim daï. Always very neat and clean in spite of looking like a gangster. Next in place of honor are number 2, and number 3, Padam daï, who “welcomed” me yesterday. They shout those numbers out in rapid crescendo. Behind them march the monitors from Dormitory 3, followed by a line of 30 or so prisoners which gets longer as time goes on. At 6:30, the line stops and all are dismissed.
During the morning, the chowkidar meets with his subordinates. Every day he leaves the yard at 10 a.m., after the meal. He works all day in the administrative buildings outside, and comes back only for the 8 p.m. number. Bim is the only one in Dormitory 3 who gets to have a single bed, while the others sleep on the floor, jammed up against one another. He is on a sort of parole. But his main role is to provide a link between management and the detainees.
The warden chooses a monitor from among the detainees, a chowkidar who will represent the others. The chowkidar appoints the daï. This is how to run a prison without going to too much trouble or expense.
Between 9:30 and 10 p.m., the mosquito nets are hung up. The lights are on all night, in case anyone needs to go to the toilet, as well as for surveillance purposes. Outside, the monitors for Dormitory 3 are on the watch, relieving each other every two hours, patrolling the central cellblock until dawn. This is their duty 1, so the prison never sleeps. They patrol alone, so each time a round is completed they have to shout out to prove to the others that they didn’t “’take the Midnight Express”.
-The rules are very strict. The police come in twice a day just for the numbers. Apart from that they are only on the watch towers. But here there are criminals who have killed ten or twenty people!
-What? There are serial killers?
-Yes. We dai have to act as police or it would be anarchy! The strong ones wouldn’t let the weak ones eat…
In this self-managed prison, the detainees police each other, contributing at times to an atmosphere one could call paranoid, if not schizophrenic. I am told that if I violate the rules, I can be taken to the library and beaten up by the daï. Later, I learn something that not Padam nor anybody knows. In January 2009, there was a mutiny here. For two days, the monitors would not allow the police or new arrivals to enter. The police finally regained control, leaving a score of wounded, four in critical condition. Self-monitoring obviously has its limits and can degenerate. But that story is now forgotten because the most senior detainee is no longer here; he was from the previous generation. I questioned the daï:
-When I arrived, I saw a gate and a cell just next to the entrance. What was that?
-Ah, that’s what we call the P-Gate, the prison’s antechamber. There are 120 of us in this yard which was designed to hold 40. We are overpopulated by 200 percent%. There are two yards in the central prison of Rupandehi Ddistrict; they do not interconnect. The first gate you saw is number 1, twice as large as ours, but with twice as many detainees, so the overpopulation is the same. An average of 40 square feet per detainee. There is not enough space for everyone to sleep, so the evening arrivals go into the P-Gate. Every night there are about thirty 30 arrivals and ten 10 duties. The conditions are worse than in preliminary custody… when a bed is freed up inside, the first arrival gets it and doesn’t have to sleep inside the P-Gate. But that can take weeks.
a rotation of detainees who remain standing to leave room for others to sleep on the floor ↩
"I’m not going along with it, I’m a big brother. You don’t realize, I’ve been in this place for three and a half years! What do you want me to do? I do it to pass the time."
Climbing the ladder
Later, Padam with his slim silhouette comes and talks to me. I tell him about my time in preliminary custody, what the first interpreter responded when I complained about the mosquitoes in the inspector’s office: “That’s life.” Padam heats up and his eyes flash like an angry vigilante:
-No, dude, that’s not life! You know that the guys who work here as guards are not paid but get reduced terms – a month and a half per year for the daï in Dormitory 3, one for the dormitory heads – and I get nothing. Why? Because guys under 40 yeas of age incarcerated for drugs aren’t eligible for reduced sentences! Almost all of us here are in that category!
-Why do you go along with it then?
-I’m not going along with it, I’m a big brother. You don’t realize, I’ve been in this place for three and a half years! What do you want me to do? I do it to pass the time. And I get power, I’m respected.
-So could I work to get out sooner? I ask for information only, because I don’t actually want that. I think the benefits are meager compared to the humiliating exploitation the monitors are subjected to; they are treated like pawns.
“I don’t know, maybe. But you know, there are a lot of guys who want to become daï. That’s hard to come by and you have only a one-year sentence. The long-term ones get priority. There’s an internal hierarchy; you have to climb the ladder. Usually there is a probationary period of at least two years. You need to show that you have charisma, responsibility – earn the confidence of the others. But you are a special case. I don’t know; we’ll see.”