Until last year, four-year-old Mantasha used to think a car was the rubbish redi, the cart that was rolled into the prison barracks each day, where she lived along with her mother, 24-year-old Mehram. The latter completes five years of imprisonment this December at Bhondsi Prison, Haryana. Convicted for the murder of her husband and sentenced to life imprisonment, she hails from Mewat, one of the most notorious and heavily crime affected districts of Haryana.

The person who actually murdered Mehram's husband was an older man in the same village, who fell in love with her, but Mehram was convicted as an accomplice when her in-laws allegedly testified against her and confirmed her involvement with the other man. She was disowned by her in-laws after conviction, as a result of the shame and disgrace that the charges of murder and imprisonment had brought to their family, and they withdrew all support and communication. Fortunately, she did not lose the financial or emotional support of her own parents.

Today, Mehram is one of twenty-five other convicted women in Bhondsi prison, and makes a small living from gardening and cleaning. Begum Fatima Ali, Mehram's mother, frequently visits her daughter and granddaughter at the prison to ensure that they have additional means of support (money, food and clothes).

Soon after she was arrested and brought to prison as an undertrial, Mehram delivered baby Mantasha. Sadly, Mantasha has only ever lived in the barrack she plays, sleeps and eats in until today. Up at 5:30 each morning, she trails her mother around the barracks and compound while Mehram gets her daily chores done. They settle down for a few slices of bread and milk (provided by the prison) at around 8:30. Immediately after that, the child hops into the common bathing area, where she brushes and bathes, and incredibly, washes her tiny clothes and gets dressed by herself.

It is noteworthy that for female inmates with children, the crèche facility is merely optional and cannot be made mandatory. In fact, many jailed mothers need intense counselling before they can be convinced of the benefits of their children being enrolled at such a facility.

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By 9 am she and the other children (all imprisoned along with their mothers) are at the in-house jail "crèche." This facility is situated within the walls of the women's prison and an average of ten children (annually) spend some part of their day here. However, prior to 2013, Mantasha only had the company of one other little girl and had never interacted with little boys her age, or male individuals of any age for that matter!

Children in prison

In India, each jail is governed by the state's jail manual, and the Indian prison administration is collectively under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Children are permitted to accompany their imprisoned mothers (and in some cases, fathers) inside jails until they complete six years. According to the NCRB Crime Report, a total of 344 convicted women with their 382 children and 1,226 undertrial women with their 1,397 children were lodged in various prisons across India at the end of 2012. In effect, therefore, nearly 1800 children are at the mercy of the prison system.

The Model Prison Manual, 2003 suggests that a creche and nursery be made available for all children imprisoned, in a separate enclosure. However, guideline sets have not been addressed to their full potential in many cases, and in some cases not at all. Bhondsi prison, is one among just a handful of jails in India that conform to the Supreme Court directives on the treatment of children imprisoned with their parents (Justice Iyer Committee 1986).

The creche at Bhondsi Prison is a set of two rooms in a separate section of the jail which serve as classroom and playroom. It adjoins the medical room where a visiting female doctor keeps a check on the health of the women and children imprisoned. The children spend three hours in the morning and two hours in the evening at the creche/play-area. A convicted female inmate, a Hindi medium graduate, is employed by the jail as in-charge of the creche, and is responsible for 'teaching' though the curriculum is far from being a structured one.

This is certainly not value intensive or sensitized childhood learning; neither is the creche in-charge an appropriately trained individual. Also, it is noteworthy that for female inmates with children, the creche facility in any prison in India is merely optional and cannot be made mandatory. In fact, many jailed mothers need intense counselling by the prison doctor or social workers or the jail authorities before they can be convinced of the benefits of their children being enrolled at such a facility. Clearly, that is a much better option any day for the children when compared to being cooped up in overcrowded prison cells with adults.

Life after prison

Ironically, even after the parent is released from jail, the lives of these children often continue to suffer from a lack of security and normalcy. Take Mantasha's case for example. As on date Mehram's family is awaiting her release on bail and their first agenda is to arrange for her nikaah (wedding) with Aleem, incidentally also a convicted prisoner belonging to Mewat. The startling fact is that Aleem has more than 35 charges against him (including rape) and he also is one of the most notorious male inmates at the Bhondsi Jail. Yet, on several occasions Mehram has expressed consent and willfulness towards her potential alliance with Aleem and has very gladly stated, "bilkul, mujhe toh love hai" (I am in love with him).

Mehram is a good mother and her highest priority is to ensure that Mantasha has access to decent education and doesn't end up in the same state as herself; strangely, in spite of that, she remains completely oblivious to the fact that Aleem might be the worst father figure for her daughter.

This pattern of female inmates resorting to marry almost anyone for financial and emotional support post their release from prison has widely been observed in the Indian context and has its root in a rather obscure sense of morality. Families refuse to accept the stigmatized woman back into their homes, but if she returns with her burdens shared (read: married), she may still have a chance at social deliverance. However, this could often lead to a far-from-desirable situation for the child in question.

Children at the Bhondsi Prison creche. Pic courtesy: Ruchika Nigam.

A challenged system

Mantasha is still among the more fortunate children to be living in the conditions that she is today, having been born in one of the more well-equipped prisons. She has a doting mother, concerned grandparents, a creche for learning and play, and some semblance of a routine. However, in the final analysis, she is still at the mercy of a prison system which has even greater challenges to deal with - prison overcrowding, corruption, inadequate staff, untrained/insensitive staff, bureaucracy etc. In all of this, the deserved attention to the developmental concerns of a toddler imprisoned by circumstance is often lost.

It is not as if the need for such attention is unrecognised. As Justice Krishna Iyer said in Sunil Batra (II) versus Delhi Administration, 1980 "Convicts are not by mere reason of the conviction denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise possess." Imprisonment in itself is the punishment.

Article 21 of the Constitution of India on the protection of life and personal liberty clearly lays down that "no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law." In addition, Article 45 of the Indian Constitution lays down that a State must "endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years." But there is very little constructive action or clear instruction on how children like Mantasha can still retain such very basic human rights.

These children are often forced to move into prisons with their imprisoned mothers as the latter remain the primary caregivers. In the bargain, many of them suffer loss of health and difficult living conditions, are isolated from the outside world, and exposed to the jaded world of the adult inmates. They are deprived of social and emotional security because of no fault of their own.

The prison system cannot be entirely blamed for such conditions either, for they too are left powerless by the archaic provisions of the Prisons Act 1894, leading to a dismal reality for innocent children who are criminalized rather than recognized as victims of circumstance.

Since 2012, efforts have also been made by an NGO - the India Vision Foundation (IVF), to 'mainstream' the lives of children languishing in prisons. IVF specifically deals with the reintegration of children of incarcerated parents or families and has now spent over 19 years working with this vulnerable population at Tihar Jail, New Delhi. It has impacted the lives of more than 300 children, providing them support and enabling their smooth transition from the jail crèche facility to formal schooling in residential missionary schools.

Fragile hope

In 1986, the Government of India constituted the National Expert Committee on Women Prisoners headed by Justice Krishna Iyer to examine the situation of women in jails. The committee submitted a report examining all possible issues regarding care and support for imprisoned women and children, including the treatment and care of pregnant or lactating mothers.

More recently, in response to a public interest litigation - Upadhyay Vs State of A.P., 2006, the Supreme Court has emphasised the upholding of fundamental rights and formulated guidelines regarding pregnancy, child-birth, antenatal and post-natal care, and childcare in prisons. The Apex court has clearly stated the following, specifically with regard to childcare:

  • Female prisoners shall be allowed to keep their children with them in jail until they attain the age of six years.

  • After six years, the child shall be handed over to a suitable surrogate as per the wishes of the female prisoner.

  • Expenses of food, clothing, medical care and shelter shall be borne by the respective state.

  • There shall be a creche and a nursery attached to the prison for women where the children of women prisoners will be looked after. Children below three years of age shall be allowed in the creche and those between three and six years shall be looked after in the nursery. The prison authorities shall preferably run the said creche and nursery outside the prison premises.

  • A dietary scale prepared by the National Institute of Nutrition, Council of Medical Research, Hyderabad, provides guidelines for a balanced diet for infants and children up to the age of six.

  • Jail manual and/or other relevant rules, regulations, instructions etc. were to be amended within three months of these directives in order to comply with the above directions.

These provisions, if adhered to properly, could go a long way in safeguarding the rights of children imprisoned by circumstance and ensure a childhood least affected under those circumstances. However, without a vigilant implementation of the recommendations, guidelines and directives stated above and a firm foothold of judicial activism, the mission to save these children who languish in prisons may remain a distant dream.