Dharmendra Jore: Byculla prisoner's murder is evidence of rot

It's not just another story of atrocities in jails, but also points to a collective system failure

Byculla jail inmate Manjula Shetye's alleged murder by prison officers should fit right in with the horror stories of atrocities in prisons. Shetye, though, was no ordinary prisoner. She was a convict officer — a state appointee from among convicts who acted as a prefect for the inmates and reported directly to jail officers. 

Some convicts and undertrials have even authored books and made field reports for higher studies while serving time in jails in Maharashtra. Activist Arun Ferreira, who spent time in a Nagpur jail, wrote a book on his experience there, and says that the prison officers use convict officers as extra-institutional force to control prisoners. He further says, "The convict officer is a prized position, for it entitles a remission in jail sentence. These prisoners obtain better food from the mess and sometimes, the 'sick diet' (milk, fruit, eggs)."

He adds, "They (convict officers) charge the prisoners for putting in a good word with the authorities to get them a remission in their jail sentence or allowing the prisoner to have 'illegal' articles in jail (ghee, charas, or hashish)."

Parallel economy
If Ferreira and many others are to be believed, then our prisons run a parallel underworld and economy, which is controlled jointly by influential inmates and prison officers. Such allegations have been made repeatedly, and several officers have faced action when caught. A recent case that came to the fore was of Mumbai blast convict Mustafa Dossa, who before his death due to cardiac arrest, was reported to have lived like a king in Arthur Road jail.

This isn't restricted to jail premises. Outside jails, allegations of managing a prolonged stay in connivance with government hospitals are also made regularly.

Why did Shetye die at the hands of officers? Did she raise her voice against them or not follow her boss' diktat? So many questions, but no answers are forthcoming.

Inmates have told the police that Shetye was a good soul, popular among them and fought for their rights.

Corruption, violence and conspiracy are said to be an integral part of life in prison. The Bahubalis win, the ordinary prisoners perish. Some of them may survive by surrendering to the mighty ones. Some unfortunate ones, like Shetye, die a violent death.

Why is govt inactive?
What is surprising, however, is that state authorities have not yet made any statement on the inhuman murder. Should we then say that the government is feigning ignorance despite knowing the reality inside jails? Serious incidents like jail breaks, in which several prisoners had fled high-security prisons, did force the government to use modern technology in securing the premises where serious offenders are housed.

Shetye's is a brutal murder, so no accused should go unpunished. If not investigated properly, it would definitely prove an indelible blot on CM Devendra Fadnavis' tenure as home minister.

Why? Because even as the Byculla incident rocked the state, the home department's prisons section has come under heavy criticism from the Bombay High Court for not improving conditions of jails across the state. Now, in view of Shetye's murder and the protest by inmates, the HC has asked for enhanced security of jails.

We have been hearing for long that prison's top brass are trying to match the standards set by Kiran Bedi's correctional work in the Tihar jail. They should have realised by now that the rot isn't that easy to stem.

Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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