By Suneha Dutta
SEPARATION FROM family plays a huge part in the punishment of criminals. But those arguing for human rights feel that prisoners too should have the right to maintain familial bonds even as they undergo rigorous punishment. In a step towards the recognition of such rights, Punjab prison authorities have decided to allow inmates to have conjugal visits from their legal spouses. The prisoners will get to spend a few days every month with their wives and they will have a room to themselves inside the prison premises.
The plan, the first of its kind in India, was announced on 9 September. It is different from Open Jails, where the inmates are allowed to live with their families all year round, and from Visitation Rights, which allow family members to visit only for a few hours on a specific day.
The opportunity of spending time with their spouses does sound like good news for inmates, especially those serving longer terms. Therefore, it came as a surprise when it was revealed that not many were enthusiastic about the plan.
When 39-year-old Rajit Singh, who is serving life imprisonment at the Ludhiana Central Jail for murder, is asked whether he would like to live with his wife in jail, he replies, “No. It’s not right for my wife to come and live among many men.” Even when he is told that they will have separate quarters, he is unwilling to change his mind. “That doesn’t matter,” he says. “I miss my family, especially my child, but I am happy to visit them when I get parole. That’s enough. Wives should not come to such places.”
These reservations are echoed by some of the prisoners’ wives. Manu’s husband is serving a lifer at the Ludhiana Central Jail. The possibility of being under the surveillance of jail authorities is what deters her from wanting to stay there. “It will be embarrassing and uncomfortable to live in a place where you are under constant watch,” she says.
Advocate Chetna Birje, who represents Human Rights Law Network, a legal institution working for prison reforms, agrees that the fine line between security and privacy is difficult to maintain. “How do they plan to use surveillance when they want the couple to have a private visit?” he asks. “What about the consent of the visiting spouse? Many may not be comfortable with the idea of living in a jail surrounded by policemen.”
Arun Kumar, a 26-year-old serving a lifer for murder, feels that instead of spreading cheer, these visits will aggravate the misery of the prisoners. “The sadness we are suffering is a punishment for what we have done. We want our families to be happy. Seeing us in our misery will make them even sadder,” Kumar says.
Ludhiana Jail Superintendent Satyendra Pal Khanna feels these responses arise because of the backwardness of the region and their patriarchal way of thinking. “Prisoners will resist this idea, but will eventually come around,” he says.
PUNJAB PRISONS DIG Jagjit Singh, says they will introduce the concept at the new jail coming up in Faridkot in 2011. “Prisoners with good conduct, the newly wed and older inmates will get to live with their wives for at least two days every month. The frequency and the number of days could increase,” he says.
The conjugal visit system exists in the US, Canada, France, Denmark and Cuba, and was recently introduced in Pakistan. While provision of basic human rights is a big reason, combating AIDS is another rationale for allowing such visits. Experts believe that sexual violence and frustration can be kept in check if inmates get a chance of living with their spouses. As of February this year, 210 out of 2,500 prisoners have tested positive for HIV in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. Punjab authorities refused to disclose the number of HIV cases in the state’s jails.
‘We want our families to be happy. Seeing us in our misery will make them even sadder,’ says inmate Kumar
Punjab seems to have taken a cue from a PIL filed in the Bombay High Court about the treatment facilities for HIV positive prisoners. The HC had recommended that the Maharashtra government introduce conjugal visits. Anand Grover, who was appointed amicus curiae in the PIL case, says that though the HC only made a suggestion, it is a feasible idea. “Conjugal visits, coupled with the availability of contraception, will check the rise of HIV positive cases in prisons,” says Grover.
However, when asked whether the AIDS angle was what spurred the Punjab authorities to take the initiative, DIG Jagjit denied it, saying, “We are introducing it on humanitarian grounds. It will reduce the frustration of inmates who are cut off from the outside world. AIDS is almost non-existent in Punjab prisons.”
In a country where prisons are devoid of life’s most basic amenities, a provision as thoughtful and humane as this is unexpected, but welcome. In another few months, we will get to know whether this story had the intended happy ending.