Behind bars: incarcerated mothers and their innocent children
46 boys and girls are living in prisons in Odisha with their moms, who are serving sentences, and have no access to court-mandated welfare
That a mother and child are inseparable is a truism. Odisha’s prisons validate it, but for a different reason. Here is why.
Forty-six children, aged between one month and six years, now live in prisons with their mothers, who are serving sentences for crimes from murder to kidnapping to drug dealing. Of the 25 girls and 21 boys, many are old enough to go to school. But they don’t.
In response to an RTI application by human rights lawyer Biswapriya Kanungo, Odisha’s Directorate of Prisons and Correctional Services said nine mothers are convicts, while 36 are undertrials. Of the 45 mothers, 30 belong to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.
Although the Supreme Court guidelines say cases of women prisoners with children should be disposed of expeditiously, the reality is different.
According to the RTI reply, one of the imprisoned mothers, lodged in the Pallahara sub-jail in Angul district, has been granted bail, but cannot be freed as she is unable to furnish sureties. But the RTI reply doesn’t mention the date of grant of bail, nor the surety amount. Some others have been imprisoned for petty offences for which they should have got bail long ago. But there are eight mothers who are incarcerated for four years.
“Children lodged in jails with their mothers are neither convicts nor undertrials. They are entitled to food, shelter, medical care, clothing, education and recreational facilities,” points out Mr. Kanungo.
According to the SC guidelines, children below three years shall be allowed in crèche and those between two and three years should be looked after in nursery. The prison authorities should run crèche and nursery outside the prison premises. Small children should not be kept in sub-jails unless facilities are ensured for their biological, psychological and social growth,” the guidelines say.
Kamal Lochan Sethi and his wife, Sujata, whose daughter was born in jail, would not have suffered so much had prison authorities developed facilities as per the guidelines. They were arrested on suspicion of being ‘active’ supporters of the outlawed CPI (Maoist) on May 18, 2008. Three months after their arrest, Ms. Sujata gave birth to a girl. Over the next nine years, both Mr. Kamal and Ms. Sujata lived in four jails and their experience of raising a child in prison was painful.
“The one good thing done by the administration was that they admitted my wife in the MKCG Medical College Hospital, Berhampur, for delivery. On return to jail, the mother and baby were supposed to get special proteinrich diet and massage oil, but to our surprise nothing reached them. My wife had to go on strike to get them,” said Mr. Kamal.
Ms. Sujata shivers recollecting her first day after shifting to a Bhubaneswar jail. “The authorities put me and my daughter in a 6X6 feet solitary cell for 24 hours. In that dark room, she cried for hours but the warders turned a deaf ear. The next day, we had to plead with the authorities to free us from it,” she said. The Sethis were released last year after being acquitted in all cases.
Anup Patnaik, former IGP (Prisons), Odisha, admitted that jail manuals had to be unambiguous in handling sensitive issues.
“Regular visits by top officers to jails and situational reports by the probation officer would sort out most problems. I don’t think it is happening,” he said.
Further, once they turn six, children must be handed over to a guardian as per the wishes of the mother or sent to an institution run by the Social Welfare Department. However, prison staff allegedly manipulate the children’s age to avoid official processes for complying with SC guidelines.
Court guidelines say cases of women prisoners with children should be cleared expeditiously.