Tihar Jail is a land of bakeries and carpentry shops, where inmates compete in music contests, take classes and perform intensive Buddhist meditation as part of their rehabilitation.
Tihar Jail is crammed with people awaiting trial who sleep on concrete floors, face daily threats from other prisoners and are shaken down for bribes from their poorly paid jailers, according to human rights lawyers and former inmates.
The two sides of India’s most famous jail emerged this week when a man accused in the notorious rape of a woman aboard a New Delhi bus was found dead in his cell. Jail authorities said Ram Singh, 33, hanged himself, but his family questioned how he could have done that with three cellmates sleeping beside him. A magistrate is investigating.
Just two days earlier, the jail’s director-general strutted the catwalk at a fashion show premiering the design creations of Tihar’s female inmates.
The genius of Tihar officials is that they are able “to violate human rights, and have a brilliant camouflage,” said Colin Gonsalves, a Supreme Court lawyer and the director of the Human Rights Law Network.
Tihar is a massive complex of nine separate jails in New Delhi that is one of the largest incarceration facilities in South Asia. Like many of India’s prisons, it long suffered from a reputation for badly mistreating prisoners.
In the 1990s, Kiran Bedi, a reformist police official, took charge and tried to turn it around. She introduced yoga, brought in literacy and vocational classes and reined in some of the jail’s worst excesses, a process she documented in her book, It’s Always Possible. A film, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, praised the jail’s intensive 10-day silent meditation programme.
The jail also became a business, making about US$5.5 million in revenue this fiscal year, according to jail officials. Its bakery sells TJ’s biscuits at a network of TJ shops and upscale malls around the capital. Its woodworking factory sells a large computer table for about US$100. A small shop just outside Tihar’s walls sells sweets, white dress shirts, candles and cleaning products made by the inmates, as well as their paintings, mainly of women, staring off into the distance.
It held a Tihar Idols music competition last year and is selling a CD of songs from the winners.
In recent years, Tihar has become renowned for its gentle treatment of lawmakers and former Cabinet ministers charged with corruption. In 2011, a judge found a jail superintendent having tea and biscuits in his office with an incarcerated parliamentarian.
But most prisoners don’t fare that well, according to lawyers and former inmates.
“The myth is that it’s one of the model prisons ... but as far as we can make out, there has been a downslide to the same old rotten practices that we heard of earlier,” Gonsalves said, citing reports of drugs, extortion and torture.
According to the jail’s own statistics from January, it is filled to nearly twice its capacity, with 12,199 inmates in a facility built for 6,250. Just over a quarter of the inmates have been convicted of crimes, while the rest are awaiting trial - some for years. A study published last year in the Delhi Psychiatry Journal reported 18 suicides in the jail in just over 10 years. The authors, who worked in Tihar’s psychiatry department, said those numbers might be even higher, because the deaths of other suicide victims might be recorded in the hospitals where they were rushed.
Last year, an inmate who required a feeding tube because of a prior injury lost 28kg in jail, bringing his weight to 30 kilograms, according to a judicial investigation. He died, emaciated and riddled with tuberculosis, of an infection around his feeding tube.
One visiting prison lawyer told of watching guards hit inmates with iron bars and seeing an inmate hung upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being barred from the jail.
“Living conditions are not proper for a human being,” said N.D. Pancholi, another lawyer with clients at the jail.
Mohammad Ahmad Kazmi, who spent seven months in the prison last year on charges that he was involved in the bombing of an Israeli diplomat’s car, said he was in a high-security ward where one inmate was beaten and attacked with scalpels that were routinely smuggled inside the prison.
Despite constant security checks, many inmates had cellphones, which are banned but tolerated by poorly paid guards who have been bribed, Kazmi said. The jail’s cellphone jammers rarely worked, he said.
Inmates were given barely edible food, forced to sleep on the concrete floor with two black blankets as padding and allowed to buy low-quality fruits and toiletries for as much as five times the price they would cost outside the jail, Kazmi said.
Tihar spokesman Sunil Gupta denied any mistreatment.
“The conditions are the best,” he said. “We are clear. We are transparent. Here there is total peace.”
He pointed to routine visits by senior judges who ensure the inmates are kept in good condition.
Bedi, the former jail director, agreed, saying the constant flow of volunteers prevented the mistreatment of prisoners.
But former inmates and lawyers said visitors, including occasional journalists, were shown only a small part of the facility, the one with the bakery, cricket grounds and music room.
“There is a place where nobody goes inside, where no agency gets in to investigate to know the exact situation inside the jail,” Kazmi said.
Gupta said all the jails at the facility were the same, and that those criticising Tihar were spreading “false propaganda.”
When asked if a journalist could take a tour of Tihar, he responded: “You can’t visit the jail ... we don’t allow it.”
Iftikhar Gilani, a Kashmiri journalist who was jailed on spying charges that were eventually dropped, described his eight months in Tihar in 2002 as “a very harrowing experience.”
He said convicts doled out beatings at the behest of guards, and that his jailers forced him to clean a toilet with a shirt and then wear it for three days.
Gilani, who wrote a book about his experience called My Days in Prison, said the truth of what is happening is hidden from outsiders.
“It is entirely a different world. It is like a person in the 21st century is thrown into a time machine and ends up in the medieval period,” he said.