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Anatomy Of A Prison: Inside Mumbai's Overcrowded, High-Profile Arthur Road Jail

It is the home to all things corrupt. Prisoners live in the most inhumane conditions in this overcrowded prison located in one of the most crowded parts of Mumbai. 

Mumbai Police
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Over-crowding, inhuman conditions, abysmal health facilities, rampant corruption, and sodomy belong to the long list of maladies that infest the Mumbai Central Jail popularly known as the Arthur Road Jail. A holding facility for undertrials and convicts, this maximum-security prison located in one of the most crowded areas of Mumbai is home to dreaded gangsters, murderers, terrorists, rapists and VIP prisoners. Despite recommendations by various government and judicial committees to decongest this prison, not much has happened overly due to the paucity of funds in a state seeped in debt. When the revenue deficit of Maharashtra stands at Rs 24,353 crore maintenance of prisons is the last on the priority list of the government.            

Built in 1926, it is counted as one of the largest and most crowded prisons in India. It was accorded the status of a central prison in 1972. Although the name was changed to the Mumbai Central jail in official documents, in local parlance the jail continues to be referred as the Arthur Road Prison and occupies over two acres of land. 

The over-crowding and the presence of dreaded gangsters has seen skirmishes and violence. Prisoners live in the most degrading and inhuman conditions and little is done by the state government to stem the rot in this prison, said sources in the know of happenings within this prison.  

The jail has seen numerous instances of violence amongst its inmates. In 2006, a deadly clash between members of the Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan gangs broke out and saw many injuries. Since then, the prison authorities have been lodging members of opposing gangs in different parts of the prison complex. In 2010, there was another violent clash between gangster Abu Salem and Mustafa Dossa, an accused in the 1993 Bombay Bomb Blasts case. Dossa slashed Salem’s face with a sharp object injuring him severely.  
In January this year an undertrial Mohammed Hanif Mohammed Iqbal Shaikh, who was arrested in a theft case died by suicide, hanging himself with a bedsheet in one of the toilets of the prison.  

In 2020, an undertrial prisoner had written a letter to the Bombay High Court listing out the horrors of the Arthur Road Prison. The prisoner had written that jail officials use old inmates to abuse and intimidate newcomers to the prison. Sources told Outlook that corruption is rampant in this prison and that “crores are earned by sorting inmates into the barracks”. In his letter the prisoner had complained about the rampant corruption, extortion, sexual exploitation of the inmates and the deplorable medical facilities inside the jail. There are four doctors for the over 3800 inmates lodged in Arthur Road Prison which has the capacity to house about 800 odd inmates. 

There is a serious lack of not only medical facilities but also drinking water in the prison complex. The over-crowding has also led to a dearth of toilets and bathrooms. According to sources those prisoners who have the money or muscle power or both get to use the toilets and bathrooms first. The poorer prisoners have to wait for hours to use both facilities. There is a strong class system that exists in this prison. Those with money and power have the last word, while those without it are relegated to work as “servants” of the gangsters and other “powerful” prisoners.

They wash clothes and “look after” all the needs of these other prisoners. The gangsters and those with money get to occupy a larger space in the cells, while the poorer ones have to sleep in a sitting position in whichever corner of the cell they can get a bottom-hold. Some years ago during a surprise visit to the prison, a Maharashtra minister noticed that Salem’s cell had marble flooring and bathroom facilities. His cell had a bed, utensils, tiffin boxes and posters of models. In Dossa’s cell too there were tiffin boxes and large supplies of dry fruits and fruits.
“Prisoners with money and the gangsters refer to this prison as a guest house. It is a place here they can get all that they crave for a price which they willingly pay. The jail staff are subservient to these prisoners,” said the source.     

In his letter the prisoner had written that new prisoners are made to sit in sexual positions to intimidate them. When a new comer is brought into prison a medical check up is conducted before the prisoner is allotted a barrack. Those with money ar sent to barracks 3, 8, 10 and 12. Those without money are sent to the over crowded barracks which are unhygienic with no place to even sleep. According to a source the paying power in the prison is the decider for the facilities that are made available to them. Special tea, salad, tobacco, food and other facilities are provided to those who can pay a certain amount of money reportedly to the jail staff every month.

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Sources told Outlook that the prison hospital is ill-equipped to deal with medical emergencies. Though the jail staff and the police personnel are aware of the goings-on in the prison they often turn a blind eye as they fear for their own security and that of their family, said the source. Chicken biryani is the most sought-after delicacy here and the gangsters have the privilege of getting foods of their choice, said the source.  

Listed amongst the horror tales of this prison is sodomy, which the source told Outlook was reportedly common. “New recruits are at risk and are often exchanged for sex. Young prisoners suffer the most and are traumatized for life,” said the source.        

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Prison establishments in India exist at three levels – the taluka, district and central prisons. These jails are categorized as sub-jails, district jails and the central jails. There are women’s jails, juvenile detention centers, open jails and special jails amongst the categories in India.  While the central jails have better infrastructure, amenities and facilities such as medical, educational and rehabilitation, the sub-jails and the district jails are stories of horrors. Said sources. There are no district jails in Maharashtra.

Decades ago, the Arthur Road Prison was located on the outskirts of the island city but is now boxed in between suburban railway stations of Mahalaxmi and Chinchpokli and the Jacob Circle Monorail station. The prison is surrounded by tall high-rises on all sides housing residential and commercial properties. Considering the fact that the courts of Mumbai are located about 10-15 kms away, the Arthur Road Prison has become a major holding facility for undertrials prisoners. 

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The State Human Rights Commission had in the past suggested that the prison must be decongested. Considering the security threat posed to the prison due to the high-rises, another committee which was set up to inspect this prison had recommended that it be shifted to another location. Proposals to build a similar prison in the eastern suburbs of Mankhurd have been lying on the backburner for decades.  
In July 2021, eight new barracks were added to this prison complex which has the capacity to house 200 additional inmates. The shortage of funds led to delays in construction of these barracks.

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