March 28, 2020
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Behind Bars, You Get Sushi

It needs only pelf and power to enjoy luxuries inside jail. Quite a few manage them too.

Behind Bars, You Get Sushi
Good Life
Video grabs of AIADMK leader V.K. Sasikala show the privileges she enjoys at the Bangalore Central Prison, where she has been lodged as a convict in a disproportionate assets case
Behind Bars, You Get Sushi

Jails are like a parallel universe. The rich and the powerful manage to pay their way through layers of corruption to buy privile­ges for themselves. Those who cannot afford it struggle to survive till they find their way out of the legal labyrinth. For them, the process itself becomes the punishment.

The goings-on inside prisons came back into sharp focus with Karnataka IPS officer D. Roopa’s report on Ban­galore Central Prison highlighting the comforts enjoyed by its high-profile inmate V.K. Sasikala. The officer—subsequently transferred to a traffic post-ing even as an inquiry into her report has begun—pointed out to rumours that Rs 2 crore had changed hands for special treatment for the powerful Tamil Nadu politician. The 60-year-old AIADMK leader even had a kitchen for her exclusive use, Roopa said.

The report also red-flagged other issues. These included information that another convict Abdul Karim Telgi, serving term for the fake stamp paper racket, had a few undertrials serving him in his cell. Besides, there was rampant use of cannabis in the jail, as the administration failed to check the flow of drugs.

Much of this doesn’t really come as a surprise to those dealing with the country’s criminal justice system. Outlook spoke to experts, lawyers, former jail administrators and even those who have served time inside prison to piece tog­ether how it is possible to get just about anything in jail. For a price, of course. As per information put together from various sources, an inmate can lead a comfortable life inside the jail at a monthly expense of about Rs five lakh.

Raja Bagga, a programme officer with NGO Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) says Sasikala’s access to special privileges is “not really a surprise”. “The possibilities of getting luxuries are endless,” he notes. “We’ve heard from inmates (of other jails) how a samosa would cost Rs 200 if they wanted to eat one. You would get what you want, but you have to pay.”

Everything, from a sam­osa to a plate of Sushi or a bottle of Blue Label Johnnie Walker to a mobile phone—the most sought-after pri­vilege—can be “arranged” in the prison. In addition to cellphone and outside food, unauthorised perks that can repo­rtedly be purchased are allotment of a good cell and outings on medical grounds.

Mobile phones are the biggest reason for money exchanging hands in the prison system. “Mainly small-time gangsters and extortionists need the phone to keep their business running from jail. In Delhi’s Tihar, an inspection found gangster Neeraj Bawana (later shot dead in court by a rival) using a cellphone,” says a Tihar official.

Tamil Nadu jails are also notorious as places where mobile phones come in handy to “sketch” future crimes. The Central Prison at Puzhal, just outside Chennai, housing more than 300 convicts and 2,000 undertrial prisoners, is known as a hub of criminal planning. “The inmates have easy access to mobile phones to send out instructions on hit jobs or threats to witness not to depose during a trial,” says a criminal lawyer, who visits the jail to see his clients housed in the prison. “If you know who to bribe, you can get any type of food, liquor, even ganja. It is a well oiled system which includes the jail staff.”

If it is money power that rules Delhi, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, it is sheer political clout that runs roughshod over the prison system in Kerala.  Even tho­ugh the Kerala Prisons and Correctional Services (Management) Act, 2014, has addressed the rights of prisoners and tried to improve the conditions of inmates, political prisoners always seek special privileges using their political clout, sources tell Outlook.

There are whispers that political parties of various hues intimidate jail officials to extend certain privileges to their “boys” or “girls” imprisoned. A severe shortage of staff to man the prisoners has made it mandatory to install CCTV cameras in all locations in the jail but most of these sets do not function or are uninstalled to allow prisoners with pol­itical connections to enjoy themselves.

There have been reports of how the undertrials and the accused in the case of murdering CPI(M) breakaway leader T.P. Chandrasekharan posted messages on Facebook. While the allegations could not be proved, it was found that 35 of the 90 CCTV cameras in Kozhikode jail were not functional.

Money power dictates the prison system in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Delhi. Kerala’s runs around political clout.

It is believed that high-profile Saritha S. Nair, accused in a solar panel scam case, enjoyed special privileges in jail. She was seen dressed in different sarees on her way to the court even though she was only allowed two sets of clothing.

A Delhi-based lawyer says that one of his rich clients managed to live it up INS­ide Tihar jail by keeping the jail staff happy. Not only did the inmate have co-prisoners serving as attendants, he also got allotted a VIP cell attached with bathroom and a kitchen. “His favourite food was Sushi from a joint in upscale Khan Market. Only that a Rs-1,000 dish cost Rs 10,000 by the time it reached him, crossing three levels of checks. He claims he regularly invited the jail staff to join him,” the lawyer says. Also, the inmate paid some undertrials to do menial jobs for him, including cleaning his cell and toilet as well as washing his clothes. “This client of mine is not the only one who has managed these privileges,” the lawyer adds.

A retired senior officer, who served in Tihar jail for over three decades, reveals how cells inside prison are “sold”. Allotment of a good cell is the biggest source of corruption in the jail, according to him. Usually, the prisoners are sent to live in the barracks inside a huge hall with a capacity for 30 inmates. However, overpopulation in the jail means more than 100 prisoners could be allotted one barrack. The 10 jails inside the Tihar complex have a capacity for 6,250 inm­ates, but they house as many as 14,500.

“There are around 400 cells with each housing up to five inmates. It can be eit­her one, three, four or five inmates in a cell,” reveals a former jailer. “A one-time payment for a cell can be around Rs five lakh with a monthly payment of around Rs one lakh. The monthly payment is given to hold on to the cell given the high demand. However, if a prisoner wants an entire cell to himself, then the entry payment could be as much as Rs 10 lakh with a monthly payment ranging between Rs one to three lakh.”

Businessman Gopal Ansal, who is an accused in the case of Uphaar cinema tragedy, is also staying in a cell, reportedly with two inmates as attendants. Neelam Krishnamoorthy, who lost her two teenage children in the 1997 Uphaar fire, tells Outlook that she found out that Ansal has a cell to himself that he shares with two others, who are actually his sewadars (attendants). Krishna­moorthy has filed several RTIs to find out about the facilities extended to Ansal. She got a reply to one RTI seeking to know why Ansal was not produced in court for a hearing on another case on May 27. “I was told that no production warrant was received. It is clear that the prison staff is helping him maybe because he does not want to travel in the jail van with rest of the undertrials,” she says.

Then there are some cells earmarked as VIP wards, including one for Vipassana-style meditation. “These are for actual VIPs as against the CIPs (commercially impor­tant persons),” the former officer explains. “These cells cannot be allotted for money. Their allotment is done by the DG Prisons or the home secretary of the state.” Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare, during their days of fight against corruption in 2011, were allotted these cells, as was Rajendra Kumar, former principal secretary to the Delhi government.

Former police officer R.K. Sharma and politicians A. Raja and Pappu Yadav were also allotted the VIP wards. Amar Singh, another neta, too lived in one of the VIP wards and reportedly had two other inm­ates attending on him. He was allowed home-cooked food on medical grounds.

Medical privileges are other sought after perks allegedly available for a price. Sources say there are many instances when the prisoners got themselves adm­itted to a hospital (on recommendation of the prison doctors) instead of spending time in prison. “The ailment could be a small thing like peptic ulcer or migraine but will be amplified to a tumour,” reveals a doctor at Delhi’s Deen Dayal Upadhyaya hospital, where Tihar inmates are usually referred. “It can be done for a price.”

In Tihar, Manu Sharma can in two years go out within Delhi to work and return by evening. Abdul Telgi, another convict, has undertrials as helps.

There is the reported case of politician D.P. Yadav’s son Vikas, convicted for murder. Serving a life term, he managed to make 70 trips outside jail between 2008 and 2010. He spent most of his prison time in hospitals despite no rep­orted health problem. He got caught out when he spent the 2011 Diwali night outside AIIMS, where he was admitted on recommendation of jail doctors. Delhi High Court then sought a medical report from a medical board in army’s Research and Referral Hospital that said most of the visits and admissions in hospital by Vikas and his brother and co-accused Vishal Yadav were not needed.

Senior advocate Vikas Pahwa says that he cannot understand why the jail staff ext­end undue privileges. “Tihar is anyway a model jail and things have become more flexible for prisoners in terms of facilities. The stress is on reformation and not retribution,” he tells Outlook. “They can order food from the canteen and even special fruits by placing an order with the canteen. The money is deducted from the inmates’ account. There are yoga classes, meditation, legal aid, coolers and TV. Inmates are officially allowed to make one phone call of five minutes using kiosks provided on the premises.” Foreign inmates are permitted even Skype calls from the superintendent’s office.

Sewadars are officially provided by the administration to the old and the infirm, Pahwa adds. About influential prisoners, he says that Manu Sharma, serving life term for the 1999 murder of model Jessica Lal, has been shifted to a semi-open jail inside Tihar. “He can roam around freely anywhere within the premises of the prison (200 acres),” info­rms Pahwa. “After two years in semi-open jail, he will be entitled to the open prison, where he will be allowed to go out within the union territory of Delhi to work and return in the evening.”

Neeraj Kumar,  a former Tihar jail director-general who was at the helm when politicians like Kanimozhi, Raja and Suresh Kal­madi were sent to prison, says nobody got any special treatment under his watch. “I only took care of their security: they should not be atta­cked by any other prisoner,” he says. About privileges enjoyed by some prisoners, he says the jail administration can put counter-measures.

CHRI’s Bagga says a board of visitors making periodic inspections in jails is not effective. “If they were to visit the prisons as mandated, they would have known about something like this (the privileges to Sasikala). We recently did a study that found less than one per cent of the country’s 1,400 jails are following the prison-visiting rules. So, if you don’t have a visiting system in function, such incidents keep on happening without people knowing about it,” he says.

Former Vigilance Commissioner R. Sri Kumar, who headed Karnataka’s StampIT—the special team probing the Telgi fake stamp paper cases—says the criminal justice system is rotten. “So are the prisons or correctional systems. Much of what’s going on is nothing short of organised crime,” he says, adding pun­itive action doesn’t deter it. “The actions taken are often only symptomatic. ‘Off with this head and off with that head’ and so on. What’s called for is wholesale blood transfusion,” he says.


Tihar Jail Menu

  • Rs 1 lakh Mobile phone use for a month
  • Rs 1 - 2 lakh Outside food, liquor, cigarettes a month
  • Rs 5 lakh One-time payment for allotment of a cell (sharing with two others) and Rs one lakh monthly
  • Rs 10 lakh One-time payment for allotment of cell (single occupancy) and Rs one to Rs 3 lakh monthly
  • Rs 50,000 - 5 lakh Medical outing a month
  • Rs 15,000 Inmates as attendant a month

By Bhavna Vij-Aurora with Ajay Sukumaran, G.C. Shekhar and Minu Ittyipe

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