Miserable living conditions and a free rein to staff has made the jail a hellhole, say former inmates even as Crime Branch takes over the probe into Manjula Shetye’s death, which resulted in a prison riot on Saturday
Thirty-four-year-old Sushma Ramteke from Nagpur has been closely following the news updates on the Byculla women’s jail after Saturday’s riots involving more than a hundred inmates.
The death of an inmate, allegedly after being thrashed by the jail staff, the subsequent protest wherein the prisoners burned clothes, books, and furniture … Ramteke believes there’s every chance such mutiny will be repeated, because nobody is holding those in-charge of the jail accountable, and allegations of torture by inmates have never been properly investigated.
Ramteke knows only too well the life inside the Byculla jail, having spent two-and-a-half years there after she was arrested in 2011 on the charges of helping the Naxals. Out on bail and back in Nagpur, she told Mumbai Mirror over the phone that even the slightest hint of a complaint — over food, lack of space, mosquitoes, or threats from other inmates – can invite several rounds of beatings from the jail staff.
“The golden rule at the Byculla jail is, keep your mouth shut. From the time you are woken up at 5 am (see box on jail routine), till the time you fall asleep, say nothing and you’ll be fine,” she said.
The Byculla women’s jail has a sanctioned capacity to accommodate 262 inmates, and currently houses 300, of which 17 inmates are accompanied by their children. According to the information accessed by this newspaper, trouble has been brewing over the quality of food handed to the inmates for six months now. Already lodged in filthy conditions: the inmates are given one soap bar to bathe and wash clothes and utensils, there’s barely enough water for bath, and several inmates suffer from rashes and urinary tract infection.
Mumbai Mirror spoke to a Borivali resident, whose sister-in-law has been lodged at the Byculla jail for the last six months. “Every time we meet my sister-in-law, she complains about the quality of food. Worms in rice and vegetables and stinky dal is the daily staple. Inmates also have to deal with overcrowded barracks and dirty toilets,” the Borivali resident said.
Another former inmate, Sheetal Sathe, who spent two months inside the Byculla jail in 2013 on charges of helping the Naxals, said her plight was worsened because she was pregnant. “We were crammed in overcrowded barracks and were at the complete mercy of the jail staff. Inmates who won’t, or couldn’t, pay bribes were at the receiving end of some of the worst torture. There were several inmates who were ailing, but no doctor would visit them,” Sathe said.
In 2015, an inmate, Angela Sontakke, went on a five-day hunger strike to protest the plan to install CCTV cameras inside the jail premises. Enraged jail officials subjected her to solitary confinement to “teach her a lesson”, she alleged.
Pradip Bhalekar, founder of the NGO called the Mahatma Gandhi Manav Adhikaar Forum, who has been fighting for prisoners’ rights, said between 2014 and 2016, four inmates died at the Byculla women’s jail. “The jail authorities said all four died of natural causes but I doubt the information provided. All prison deaths, including that of Manjula Shetye (the inmate whose death on Friday led to the riot), have to be investigated thoroughly.
The jail authorities refuted allegations of lack of accountability, saying every time an inmate has accused the jail officials of torture, a thorough investigation has taken place. Inspector General (prisons) Rajvardhan Sinha told Mumbai Mirror, “Whenever anything untoward is brought to our notice, we immediately probe the matter. The benchmark practice we follow is allowing for a probe by a judicial magistrate.”
The Byculla jail authorities have claimed that Manjula Shetye, 45, serving a life time and who was made a warden to help the jail staff, had an altercation with the officials when they questioned her about she granting favours to inmates for cash. The inmates have alleged that Shetye was thrashed when she complained about the quality of food and filthy living conditions. Doctors at JJ Hospital, where Shetye’s body was sent for postmortem, confirmed there were multiple injury marks on the body.
Late Tuesday, the Mumbai Crime Branch was asked to take over the probe into Shetye’s death, after the Nagpada police said in the first information report that she was tortured and a stick was inserted in her private parts. “These allegations are part of the FIR filed against the jail staff,” Deputy Commissioner of Police (Zone-3) Akhilesh Singh said.
A parallel probe into Shetye’s death is being headed by DIG (prisons) Swati Sathe. “Apart from probing Shetye’s death, the inquiry will also reveal reasons behind Saturday’s riots,” Sathe said.
Advocate Asim Sarode, director of Sahayog Trust for Human Rights and Law Defenders, who has offered legal aid to the Byculla jail inmates accused in Saturday’s riot, said the government should find out why the inmates chose to react the way they did. “The government should take into consideration that there are some who are not acting as per their responsibilities. It should act against such officers and not criminalise these women prisoners,” Sarode said.
Thrashed, threatened of sexual assault: Indrani
Sheena Bora murder accused Indrani Mukerjea, booked along with other inmates for rioting at the Byculla jail and projected as instigator of trouble, moved court on Tuesday alleging she was beaten up by the jail officials and threatened with sexual assault.
Taking note of her complaint, a CBI court, which is hearing the Sheena murder case, directed the prison authorities to produce Indrani before it today.
Indrani’s lawyer Gunjan Mangla filed an application in the court saying when she went to meet her client, she told her that she was beaten up by the jail officials after Manjula Shetye’s death. “She showed me bruise marks and injuries which were very prominent on her hands, legs and head,” the lawyer claimed in the application.
Gunjan said Indrani also said that she was verbally abused by jail officials and the superintendent and was threatened with sexual assault for protesting against the death in jail. “Indrani informed me that several inmates want to give their statements against the jail officials who were involved in the incident,” the lawyer said.
Meanwhile, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has ordered a suo motu inquiry in the rioting at the Byculla jail and called for a report from the prison authorities within 15 days. Ironically, on Friday, when Byculla jail inmate Manjula Shetye was allegedly thrashed to death by the jail staff, the SHRC chairman, Justice S K Bannurmath, had supervised a workshop in Pune to sensitise the jail staff on how to treat prisoners. The workshop was also attended by officials from the Byculla women’s jail.
Inputs: Yogesh Naik
█ How I almost died inside Byculla jail
Nagpur resident Sushma Ramteke, arrested in Pune in 2011 on charges of helping the Naxals, recounts a beating inside the Byculla jail on October 8, 2011:
“My only mistake was standing up for a fellow inmate, who was pregnant and was being thrashed by a woman constable. When I intervened, the constable thrashed me, and she was joined by two others.
“After the beating, a few of us refused dinner, which angered the jail staff further. We insisted that we will not eat till we meet the jailor. While returning to our barracks, we found at least a dozen prison officials, including male constables, waiting for us. I was dragged down the stairs and thrashed, as if they wanted to set an example for other inmates.
“I would have died that day but for the timely intervention of two inmates, both African nationals. One of them threatened to remove her clothes if the prison staff didn’t stop beating me up, and that’s when the torture ended that day.”
Life inside Byculla jail
The barrack wardens wake up the inmates and line them up for counting.
The barrack locks are opened.
Breakfast, comprising poha and tea. Foreign nationals are served pav on prior request.
10.30 AM TO 11.45 AM
Lunch, comprising two chapattis, a vegetable, rice and dal. Inmates’ children are given eggs, and inmates who wash utensils get extra food.
4.30 PM TO 5.15 PM
Dinner, same as lunch.
█ Whenever anything untoward is brought to our notice, we probe the matter. The practice we follow is allowing for a judicial probe
– IG (prisons) Rajvardhan Sinha