3 years


At Home in Prison

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The lives of prisoners in Buxar open jail

She waited on the side for the speeches to end. Reformation, rehabilitation, humanism, prison reforms—there were too many of those words, and the sun rode high in the sky making her restless. She was bored, tired and hungry. Her bags were parked on the side, and she waited for the keys to the one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor.

The apartment, in the open prison, would be their first home together. She clutched a bag with two garlands strung with cheap plastic flowers. She was worried the food she had cooked for their little celebration would go bad in the heat. First, they would enact a wedding scene and exchange rings. She had brought wedding bands, too. And a clock to hang on the wall. They would have children, and they would grow old together.

Muskaan was among the first batch of women and children who had travelled to Buxar for the inauguration of the open jail. Convicts had been selected on the basis of their prison record and the nature of their crime. They would spend the rest of their sentence here in ‘gentle incarceration’ with family, to prepare them to live in society again.

Manoj Kumar Singh, Muskaan’s husband, can’t tell how old he is. “Maybe 30, maybe more,” he says. He wants to reclaim a career and have a family. Freedom, which came sooner than expected (he got a life sentence, spent 12 years of his term in Beur jail before he was moved to the open jail), has made him nervous.

During their first few days together in the open jail, he would often leave the apartment, and go for a walk on campus. He was used to being alone. “That’s what prison does to you. You are used to the expanse of time,” he says. “Muskaan would follow me around. She wanted to make up for lost time.”

She was 13 when Manoj came to her house one evening with his brother-in-law. Her family had decided he would do as a groom for Muskaan (groom abductions are common in rural Bihar even today) and saw this as an opportunity. They locked him up, and later brought along Muskaan with a priest in tow. He chanted mantras, and pronounced them man and wife. When she stepped into the room, she saw him sitting on the bed. He looked upset. She kept standing there and later slept near the door. He got out in the morning and returned to his house.

A couple of years later, Manoj went to jail on a murder charge, and Muskaan started to visit him in prison. They would write letters to each other detailing their day and how they missed each other. They fell in love. And 12 years later, she moved in with him in the open jail, and took photos on her mobile of the two wearing those plastic flower garlands.

Muskaan is not here now. In November, she had a miscarriage, and then conceived again. Because of her frail health, the doctor said she would need someone by her side. Manoj asked the prison officials if he could get his sister to come live with them. But open prison rules allow only the father, mother, spouse and children below 18 to live with the inmate. She went back to the village, and now Manoj is alone.

“I found her after so many years,” he says. “I can’t go visit her. And she can’t come and see me. What is this freedom?”

The prison campus sprawls over 45 acres. There are 104 one-bedroom apartments with tiled floors and kitchens with granite slabs and LPG gas cylinders. Inmates get utensils and ration, which includes 166 gm of mutton on weekends.

There is a pond, deer roaming the campus, and an MNERGA project for the employment of convicts. In one corner, there is a community centre with a TV set, computer centre, library and a gym. There are small vegetables patches. Inmates often forget it is a prison.

Nira Devi, 33, wants to live here forever. A scarf tied around her head, she is preparing dinner. Ajit Singh, her husband and her son stand against the wall, waiting for her to finish. In a few moments, Ajit Singh will have to rush to the gate for the prison’s roll call. Except for these reminders, it doesn’t seem she is imprisoned. Her relatives have even come over to see their new apartment.

“In the village, we don’t have tiled floors,” she says. “I love it here and we don’t have to pay any rent. My son goes to school in town, a private school, where he learns English. I don’t miss the village, it’s nice here.”

Ajit Singh has served 11 years in prison in Jahanabad. He was among the first group of convicts to be moved to the open jail. Like most other cases, he was charged with murder in a land dispute case. “It happened randomly. I took out a pistol to scare the other person, and he moved just as I fired in the air. The bullet struck him and he died,” he says.

When she came to join him on 23 May 2012, the day the open jail was inaugurated, she brought along five suitcases and a fan. She returned to refill the suitcases with more things.

“I have made friends here. It is a nice colony,” says Nira as she turns to go back into the kitchen.

Jawahar Beldar, 66, a daily wage labourer, is returning to his apartment with eggs and some vegetables, the key to his apartment dangling from his hands (he had checked the lock thrice to ensure the door was securely locked). “This is the most luxury I have ever experienced in my life,” he says.

In November, around 66 inmates were living here, now 102 flats are occupied. On Christmas day 2012, another group shifted in. Sunil Kumar was one of them. Earlier, when he was in Beur Jail—charged with murder in a land dispute case along with his uncle and other members of the family—his wife Rani Devi would take their daughter, Simran, along when she went to visit him. Through the dark, dust-laden mesh window, Simran could only hear his voice. He would never come home on parole.

“She was only nine months old when her father went to jail,” Rani Devi says, “It was like an exile that was imposed on me too. I refused to remarry.”

The day after he was shifted to the open jail, Rani, Simran, her younger brother and a few relatives went to Buxar. Rani wore a maroon sari with a gold border. They didn’t run to each other, or stay suspended in an embrace. She quietly entered the flat, unpacked, and started cleaning the place.

“It was really dirty,” she says. “I stayed back for eight days, and sent the children back to Patna.” It was an awkward moment for Simran too. Simran didn’t really know him. His image had been constructed from snippets her mother had given her over time and from what friends said about their fathers. She wore her purple frock with lace trimmings that day. Simran still does not live here though she is entitled to. Her father does not want the family there.

“My dad says we should not come so often,” Simran says. “We study in Patna. Mummy wanted us to stay here and study but dad said ‘no’. He said this is still a prison.” Frail, with her bones sticking out, Rani says it wasn’t easy getting her husband to this halfway home. Last year, she went to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s ‘janta durbar’, where he meets people and listens to their complaints, and asked him to consider shifting Sunil Kumar to the open jail. In 15 days, he was moved to Buxar Central Jail, where he was kept for 40 days before being shifted to the open jail next door.

Gabbar, who didn’t quite understand the ways of the open prison, walked out of its gates, and went to Gopalganj to see his family, and returned two days later to find he had taken his freedom too far. He was transferred back to Buxar Central Jail.

The others know that this is conditional freedom, that open jail is still jail. India has quite a few open prisons. But they all differ in terms of the state’s largesse to prisoners in terms of freedoms allowed and denied. For instance, in Rajasthan’s open jails, convicts can live with their families but the state doesn’t give them housing facilities. So, there is a class system. Some have bigger houses and drive cars, while others live in jhuggis.

Studies such as Ekunwe Ikponwosa’s landmark study, titled ‘Gentle Justice’, on Finland’s open jail system, one of the first in the world, have suggested that the introduction of policies emphasising rehabilitation rather than retribution ‘have contributed to a better understanding of the structure and functioning not only of prison populations but of social groups in general.’

The US prison system is centred around retributive justice, and a debate continues in India whether prisons should be institutions of retribution or reformation. The past few decades have seen a shift towards prison reforms with Punjab announcing that it will allow conjugal visits and Tihar Central Jail experimenting with a semi-open prison, a first for an Indian metropolis.

Not all prisoners can go to open jail, certainly not those who have committed what the law labels ‘heinous crimes’.

The Buxar open jail is on the banks of the Ganga. It is next to Buxar Central Jail, where inmates (like the unfortunate Gabbar) spend their winter sleeping on the floor in half-sleeve jackets. The open jail means freedom from cold and hunger, from dark smelly wards or solitary cells. In the crisp morning air, there are cries of vegetable vendors. In the evenings, there are those forgotten yet familiar sights—of the last few birds on pavements, sellers lighting their shops, and women hurrying home. There is the smell of cooking, of smoke rising from stoves, the sound of brash autorickshaw drivers honking, and the sight of an open sky turning orange, then blue and black.

Manoj hates waking up in the mornings for roll call. But when he looks out of the window, and sees a queue of men walking out of their apartments, rubbing their eyes, making their way to the gate, he knows he has to be there.

Then there was this request. The man, hunched with age and years in prison, asked the assistant jailer to allow him to go to his village for his son’s sacred thread ceremony.

“We can’t allow you. It is against the rules,” the assistant jailor said.

“But send me with a constable,” the old man said. “It is a big day for me.”

“Have the feast here. Call us too. We can’t break the rules like this,” the jailor said.

From almost any vantage, the prison looks out over open fields, and there are people reading newspapers outside their apartments, or baking bread, or simply idling. Some even go into town in the morning to work, like normal citizens.

Anil was among five family members who were charged with murder. At Saree Sansar, he now works as a salesman for Rs 2,500 per month. The jailor had helped six inmates of the open jail here find jobs.

Anil has bought a bicycle to commute from the open jail campus to the store where he works 10-plus-hour shifts in the main market of Buxar town.

It must seem like an eternity ago, but Anil still talks about his 1985 certificate from Dhanbad Polytechnic. He keeps a photocopy with him in prison. “When I get out, I won’t be able to find a job. I am much older now and my children have grown up,” he says. “One died of cancer. I went for three days as per the prison rules to attend his cremation. I lost a lot, but what can I say?”

Anil went to prison in 1996. It was a land dispute case. Now, he has let go of the land. Because there should be no more bloodshed, he said. He now lives with his wife, Shakuntala Devi, who likes it here. “We have no problems here. They don’t treat us like prisoners,” Anil says. “We have reclaimed dignity; slowly what society thinks of us will change too. That’s the hope.”

A group of men, all fellow inmates, are sitting by him. “Some freedom is better than none. To come out of prison sane is a task in itself,” says one.

“We slept in cramped wards. They would lock us up. I am talking about Buxar Central Jail. Other prisons are no different. There would be one open drain, and everyone in the ward would use that to piss, or defecate, or vomit. The stench would be unbearable. It would gurgle all night, and imagine, we got used to it all. Then, the brutal winters. And curses through the night or moaning. Some- times, we would wake up with a dead man among us,” he says. “Even this open jail—and we do appreciate the freedom and the opportunity— is now slowly turning into a closed prison.”

They say the government built them flats with amenities, and they suspect the prison officials who live in crumbling quarters on the same campus are jealous of the convicts, and hence, they have framed new laws. For instance, they do not allow family members to visit at night or let children above 18 spend the night in their parents’ flat.

“They still treat us like they used to in closed prison,” he says. “There are no doctors. The IG had said there would be a prison doctor but they haven’t given us one. Gabbar ran away because he was worried the authorities wouldn’t let him meet his family.” Gabbar had been in the open prison for less than a week. He now cuts a sorry figure, a man confused by freedom, a man who forgot that an open jail is still jail. It may be half way home, but is not home.