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COLLATERAL CONVICTS

Posted on: September 11, 2014

The children of women prisoners who stay in jail with their mothers live under terrible conditions — despite a Supreme Court guideline to provide them with proper care. But some states are making an effort to improve their lot.

One of the most tragic fallouts of incarcerating women who are mothers is that their young children stay with them in jail. Today, questions are being raised about the living conditions of these children below six years of age, which, more often than not, are deplorable, to say the least.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 344 women convicts with their 382 children and 1,226 women undertrials with their 1,397 children were lodged in prisons around the country in 2012.

Experts point out that the Supreme Court guidelines passed in 2006 relating to the education, living conditions, food, hygiene and psycho-social well-being of these children are being blatantly flouted.

As per the Supreme Court guidelines, children in prisons are to have separate accommodation and should not share cells with female inmates who are not their mothers. They should also not be exposed to women who use abusive language, behave violently, or might be dangerous. The guidelines also mandate that a permanent arrangement be made in all jails to provide separate food to these children to take care of their nutritional needs. Unfortunately, none of these guidelines is properly followed.

“In India, children of incarcerated parents are collateral convicts. In jails, a child is treated just like an undertrial or a convict,” says Delhi-based independent child rights lawyer Anant Kumar Asthana. “At present, the children of prisoners are not covered by any law. The Supreme Court order too is not followed strictly,” he adds.

Experts who monitor the functioning of jails say that children of convicts live under terrible conditions. “Most Indian prisons do not have a separate unit for mothers and their children; so they are often housed with other adult offenders, including women convicted of having committed violent crimes. This obviously raises child protection issues,” says Nikhil Roy, programme director for Penal Reform International, a London-based, non-government organisation which works on criminal justice.

Lawmakers say that these children should have the liberty to live in an open environment as that is their fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution. “First and foremost, there has to be a provision wherein children don’t need to stay with their mothers in the lock-ups. State governments should build hostels and playgrounds for these children. Arrangements should also be made for them to go to local schools,” senior advocate K.T.S. Tulsi says.

He adds, “In a 1980 Supreme Court judgment, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer observed that prisons are built with bricks of punitive law. This means that these children should be liberated. Since they have no role to play in the crime of their parents, their lives shouldn’t be ruined.”

A 2011 report by Haq, Centre for Child Rights, a non-government organisation, said that many jails house children above six years, and they lack the diet, medical care, recreational and educational facilities that they should have by law.

The same report also pointed out that there were instances of sexual abuse of children who live with their mothers in prison. Other kinds of torture too abound. In one jail, a mother and her two-year-old daughter were forced by other inmates to sleep on the bathroom floor for a month while she “earned her place” in the overcrowded cell.

Even as legal experts and social activists demand better living conditions for children inside prisons, government officials argue that prisons are too overburdened to put things in order.

“All our jails are overcrowded. It is difficult to provide good living conditions to prisoners. Arranging special benefits for their children is not an easy task,” a ministry of home affairs official says. “But the effort is on.”

Many child rights activists would like these children to be governed by the Juvenile Justice Act. “Under the JJ Act, these children would be entitled to basic rights and also proper counselling which would prepare them to fight the stigma of being the children of undertrials or convicts,” Asthana says.

Activists also point out that the condition of children who live in prisons of conflict-ridden states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand is much worse. “As per the NCRB, at 252.6 per cent, Chhattisgarh reported the highest overcrowding in prisons. Living conditions are terrible in most jails in the state except the central jail in Jagdalpur,” Chhattisgarh lawyer Shalini Gera says. “Also, since most of these prisoners are accused of helping the Maoists or for waging war against the state, their children are never treated with compassion.”

But some states in the country are taking some positive steps for the children of prisoners. For example, jails of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh send these children to local schools. Some also have crèches for them.

The Delhi government too has recently notified a law on the financial sustenance, education and welfare of such children.

“Even when these children come out of the jail premises, their future remains bleak. Under the Delhi government law, Rs 3,000 will be given to the first child, Rs 2,000 to the second and Rs 1,500 to the third child (if a woman prisoner has three children) a month till he or she attains the age of 18 years,” says Surinder S. Rathi, officer on special duty, Delhi State Legal Services Authority, who drafted the scheme.

Financial help apart, special provisions for the education, medical care and living conditions of children inside prisons are also listed in this policy.

“It is the duty of the state to provide adequate care and protection to children for their full physical, mental and social development in a healthy and congenial environment. This should be kept in mind,” asserts Rathi.

Are jail authorities around the country listening?

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