Conditions of prisoners in jails

Following is a translation of a letter written in Urdu we have received from Javed Ahmad Ansari incarcerated in Mumbai Central Jail, Mumbai. It is on the miserable conditions prevailing in the jail. He has also complained that he is not getting magazines sent to him including The Milli Gazette which he said is destroyed by the prison staff.

Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee’s report had exposed that the number of Muslim prisoners in jails is very high. But few are aware of the conditions prevailing inside these jails. There is no one to see the miserable conditions of these prisoners behind the four walls of jails except those who are themselves confined there. News of what is happening inside is not known to people outside. Because of denial of medical facilities, many prisoners die but neither is there any kind of protest or agitation at their deaths nor any legal action is taken against anybody. It is also true that judges and human rights activists visit jails but facts are always hidden from these people by jail authorities.  Prisoners who could muster courage to reveal the goings-on within the jails are kept at a distance from these people. Inspite of all this, on some rare occasions happenings inside the jails reach the outside world but in the absence of proper legal assistance this information gradually fades out. When the oppressors get immunity from law, they become all the more fearless and bigger oppressors. One such incident reached Nasik newspapers recently. In this incident, eight Muslim prisoners had accused Jail Superintendent Swati Sathe of communal and biased attitude, burning ja-namaz (prayer mat) and preventing Muslims from offering namaz. (Urdu Times, 11 May 2011).

The accusation against Swati Sathe of mercilessly beating Muslim prisoners in Arthur Road Jail of Mumbai in June 2008 was proved in the Criminal Writ Petition No. 1377 of 2008. Mumbai High Court had ordered filing of a case against Swati Sathe and other police personnel and taking suitable action against them but the state government, instead of taking action against Swati Sathe, obtained stay from the Supreme Court with the result that again Swati Sathe demonstrated her bias against Muslim prisoners in Nasik Jail.

In this jail, among the followers of other religions the number of Christians is very small and they enjoy the freedom of performing their religious worship daily. In addition to this, a priest is allowed in every Sunday from outside and they are allowed to pray together at one place. For Hindus there is regular permission to perform pooja and all Hindu brethren assemble at one place and worship and some times arrangements are made for gatherings also for them. Muslim prisoners also are allowed to offer five times daily namaz and two times annual namaz of Eid festivals but there are no arrangements for congregational Jumu’ah (Friday) namaz for them nor are they allowed to organise any ijtima. If some (Tablighi) Jama’at tours the jail, its people are kept away from Muslim prisoners who may tell them the facts including the biased attitude of the jail authorities. In 2009, on the occasion of Eid namaz Muslim prisoners were beaten up in Sabarmati Jail and the family members of these prisoners were also not allowed to meet them. Late Shahid Azmi, advocate, and some representatives of Jamiat Ulama-e Hind had visited the jail and met Muslim prisoners. We came to know about the facts through newspapers that these prisoners were really beaten up and maltreated.

It is written in the High Court’s Criminal Manual that Anjuman-e Islam can do da’wa and tabligh work among Muslim prisoners in jails but jail authorities by manipulations and excuses keep tabligh people away from preaching. For roza iftar also, Muslim organisations are prevented with the excuse of security whereas last year in Punjab, Kolkata and Akola jails, Muslim organisations had distributed fruits for roza iftar. According to the Jail Manual, fruits are given or can be given to Muslim prisoners for all the thirty days of the month of Ramzan at their own expenses but because of being poor and due to the high cost of fruits, they cannot get fruits etc from their own pocket. Hence, Muslim organisations in cooperation with jail administrations should arrange for roza iftars but Muslim organisations consider themselves exempt from these things or deliberately shirk responsibility in these matters.

According to chapter 19 of the Maharashtra Jail Manual 1979, the jail administration will have to take such steps for the prisoners work, education, rest etc so that they do not have any difficultly in their religious worships or prayers etc and that Jail I.G., Superintendents, medical officers etc. will help the prisoners. According to Chapter No. 23 of this manual, every possible assistance should be provided to the prisoners for their religious prayers and facilities. It is mentioned on page 438 of this manual that every prisoner has the right to bring  books and religious literature etc. into the jail from any source for his religious education and knowledge but jail authorities do not allow many books to reach the prisoners and these are destroyed. According to the Muslim Personal Law and Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India, everybody, whether prisoner or free, can participate in any religion’s programme or social work and if he doesn’t want to participate, he cannot be forced. At the same time, he is free to change his religion also, i.e., every prisoner can adopt any religion he wants according to his personal choice.

It is, therefore, quite clear that according to the Indian Constitution, Muslim Personal Law and Jail Manual every prisoner has the freedom to worship or pray according to his religion but inspite of all this in many jails an effort is definitely made, if not directly, to prevent Muslim prisoners from praying according to their religion, as was done in Nasik Jail but those prisoners must be praised for their courage who knocked on the doors of the High Court for practicing their religion. It should also be known that when a court pronounces its verdict, it has the force or status of law and this law is applicable to all persons. If the court pronounces its verdict in favour of Muslim prisoners, law will help them in offering namaz jointly or together (ba-jama’t) and other religious rituals but before that it is also our duty to convince the court that namaz, roza etc. are no doubt religious duties of Muslims but offering namaz in group, offering of Friday namaz, iftari etc. also are essential parts of prayers and there should be no restrictions of any kind in performing them punctually.

It is the duty of Muslim leaders, organisations and institutions to hire a qualified lawyer in the High Court so that he may advise and guide the Court in the right direction and the verdict may be pronounced in favour of Muslim prisoners and every prisoner may be able to perform his religious duties freely. If we show laxity in these matters and do not argue our case properly in the High Court, it is most likely that in future we may have no other course except repentance.... Hoping for your cooperation.
A prisoner waiting your help
Javed Ahmad Ansari
Mumbai Central Jail, Mumbai-400011

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 July 2011 on page no. 11

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