Humanity or Spectacle?

Aditi Kumar

The author, along with her class, visited the Mandoli Jail Complex in New Delhi, India. The following article elucidates the collective experience of the class, and an attempt by the author to find structures in the treatment of the undertrials. 

Placed away from society, the prison stands like a fortress surrounded by moats, where the distance between the prison and the civilised world mirrors the isolation of the cognitive behaviour of its inmates from the rest of the society. 

The visit is perplexing. I wonder if I am witnessing the genuine humanity that is surviving in its quarters, or am I the audience of a show, that has been prepared with dexterity by its guards? Even with excellent training, should we enter the private lives of the prisoners and take notes of their daily misery? Does having committed crimes eliminate their right to privacy? 

Referred to as UTs, undertrials are imprisoned humans that are still in the middle of court trials. There are two kinds of undertrials. There are those believed to have committed a non-bailable offence and so remain in custody or jail until the court makes its decision. And then there are those believed to have committed a bailable offence; they can leave the prison while their case is in trial but against a proprietary amount that must be submitted on their behalf to the court to ensure their return for trial. 

In practice, however, there are four kinds of undertrials. First, those who are believed to have committed a bailable offence and can afford to leave the jail on bail for the duration of their trial. The second kind is those who are believed to have committed a non-bailable offence. The third comprises those who are believed to have committed a bailable offence but cannot afford the bail, are uninformed of other remedies and are lodged in prison. And finally, those who may never have been informed of the reason for their incarceration. We meet the latter three kinds at Mandoli. 

“We are here to know everything about them, but they may not know anything about us”

We enter a beautifully painted and sparkling clean enclosure. A mat is laid on the marble floor where the undertrials sit. Chairs for us are arranged to face them, establishing the difference between us. As we sit, I wonder which one of us is the audience. We are here to know everything about them, but they may not know anything about us. We ask them about their income, their health, their education, their families, but they only want legal counsel from the lawyer who is accompanying us. They ask us nothing, yet continue to talk amongst each other as we are made to savour the biscuits made by them at the prison factory. 

“Twenty-three of them had not been presented before a magistrate within 24 hours of their arrest; they were denied a fundamental right guaranteed to all citizens”

We ask questions about the conditions of the inmates. We find that in a set of fifty-five undertrials, twenty-three of them had not been presented before a magistrate within 24 hours of their arrest; they were denied a fundamental right guaranteed to all citizens. About half of the undertrials are uneducated. We are trying to get answers through a show of hands, but the sum of opposing variables is always very less. I realise many are not answering, or raising their hands too slowly or too fast. 

A man approaches the lawyer for salāh (advice). While explaining his case, he breaks down crying. When the man speaks, he carefully chooses his words to explain his situation. The lawyer responds in a speedy answer, his tone reflecting his disbelief that the man is not aware of his fundamental rights and the legal remedies before him. 

This happens again. Two men consult the lawyer. Their tones differ, but they all hold their hands behind their backs. They don’t have any legal knowledge and need advice. The lawyer maintains the same tone and indifference with them all. Upon asking the undertrials if they received good legal advice as soon they were incarcerated, they reply in a uniform chorus that they were left in the dark, often even about why they were in prison in the first place. 

“A visit to the legal centre in the prison tells us that the lawyer who is accompanying us and who seemed irritated with the barrage of legal questions is actually supposed to be regularly advising the prison inmates and undertrials”

A visit to the legal centre in the prison tells us that the lawyer who is accompanying us and who seemed irritated with the barrage of legal questions is actually supposed to be regularly advising the prison inmates and undertrials. The legal aid officers have their proofs in a register full of thumbprints of the prisoners. But the response of the undertrials does not reflect this. 

Most activities at the complex are performed by those who knew them before they were arrested. A person fluent in the use of computers before he was arrested, teaches others. The same is true for the tailor who continues to sew the clothes of others in prison, the musician and artist who now carry on the same activities and teach them to other inmates. The inmates are free to spend their time as they like, though when asked about what they did to spend time in jail one of them responded that they cut vegetables for the cooks.  

A noticeable takeaway from the 2003 Prison Manual was that inmates should be provided with new skills and work experience that will help them lead a more productive life in society once they are released. The activities available at the prison should provide a real choice to the inmates and should consist of skills that are required in the present technological age. The Manual also states that these activities should be taught by trained prison officials to the inmates. 

What we see in the Mandoli Jail is that the activities are the imperative of the inmates who practice the art for themselves and in rare cases, teach others. It ceases to be vocational training for them. What they followed professionally before the arrest, becomes their working activity. The Prison Manual, on the other hand, requires a mixture of both working and vocational training. Seeing the scale of output the skilled inmates produce, I doubt if they have the opportunity or incentive to learn another activity. 

“As we stroll in one of the wards, we notice that most inmates are keeping to the hallways and enjoying the winter sun”

There are very few trainees learning new crafts. As we stroll in one of the wards, we notice that most inmates are keeping to the hallways and enjoying the winter sun. Even the tremendous production of grain in the chakki room is marred by the fact that the producer and the worker helping him earlier worked in the same profession. 

As our group walks out of the many security layers of the prison, I cannot help but think of French philosopher Foucault’s connection of the power and knowledge nexus with the prison system.  Many undertrials were either unaware of their arrest, or of legal remedies available to them. Only one of the fifty-five UTs had studied till the postgraduate level. Around half of the UTs (who in most cases would also coincide with those being the sole providers of their family) earned less than rupees ten thousand (about $132) a month. They cannot provide the bail amount for the alleged offence. 

“NINE MEN HAD BEEN ARRESTED AND BROUGHT TO THE SAME PRISON MORE THAN ONCE”

The CRPC 436 allows those without the means to pay bail to be released after a week of the bail order as the court keeps from discriminating among undertrials based on their assets. But how far this equality lasts in practice can be seen by the high number of undertrials that fill prisons all over the country. Around 70% of undertrials are usually proven innocent after their trial but are left to languish in prison till then. This lack of access to resources and knowledge stands true to Mandoli Jail as well. 

A final comment on Foucault’s emphasis on separating the “other” or the “dangerous” from the rest of the society as was seen in the undertrials that we met. Nine men had been arrested and brought to the same prison more than once. They were part of the group that raised their hands for believing to be arrested without knowing why. Therefore, they were being passed along the same cycle repeatedly, without learning any new skills, a striking similarity with the American incarceration system. 

Aditi Kumar is a law aspirant who recently completed a postgraduate diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding. Reading and painting in her spare time, she aspires to challenge the structural dimensions of injustice through her education.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala