Within the high walls of the central prison in Palayamkottai in southern Tamil Nadu, prison officials practice one of the worst forms of caste discrimination with impunity.

Inquiries with former prisoners reveal that for over a decade, the authorities have been segregating prisoners into different caste groups — Thevars, Nadars and Dalits – and lodging them in different blocks, with remote chances of their mingling. Worse, warders call prisoners by suffixing their caste identity to their names despite senior officials warning them against doing so on many occasions.

Forty-year-old Muniyappan (name changed), who served 7.5 years in Palayamkottai jail, said he had submitted several petitions to the authorities to stop the practice of calling prisoners by their caste names. “Caste names are heard often when visitors turn up to meet prisoners,” he said. Even while interacting with visitors, prison officials take precaution not to allow different caste groups to mingle.

Four wards in the 138-yearold central prison are earmarked for the Thevar community, two for Dalits and one for Nadars, Udayars and other intermediate castes. Thevars have managed to get better facilities for years, thanks to some Thevar officials occupying key posts in the prison over the years, said a former prisoner. The government, however, denies prevalence of any such caste discrimination in prisons. Law and prisons minister C Ve Shanmugam said, “Such practices are not there in any of the prisons in the state. I will still inquire.”

Superintendent of Palayamkottai prison C Krishna Kumar also denied that there are caste-specific blocks in the prison. “Different caste groups are put together in the cells,” he claimed. However, additional director general of police (prisons) Ashutosh Shukla told TOI the he would inquire into the issue and “take corrective measures” if it is found to be true.

Prison officials in private admit that they segregate prisoners on caste basis to prevent outside enmity spilling into jails. It has been the practice since 1984, said an official. Tirunelveli and surrounding districts, for more than two decades, have been a hotbed of caste clashes. There have been protracted violence between these caste groups in every permutation and combination. Even media has been accused of becoming insensitive to violence in the region. At the height of caste clashes in 2005, a newspaper had carried a headline, “Today’s score is 7”, referring to the number of people killed on that day. “Keeping people from different caste groups together will lead to murders in prison,” said a retired superintendent of prisons.

For instance, there were instances of stone-pelting on Thevars following the murder of Dalit leader C Pasupathi Pandian in 2012. It didn’t slowball into a major clash though, but there has always been a simmering tension in the jail, said the retired official.

Activists condemn the practice of housing prison inmates on the basis of caste divisions, saying it would not help reform them.