Prison Staff Regularly Sexually Abuse Women Prisoners – How Can We Address This Issue?

Official reports underestimate the prevalence of violence because prisoners fear retaliation, as they are forced to stay in the same place as their perpetrators.

Trigger Warning: This deals with sexual and physical violence against women, and may be triggering to survivors.

Does being convicted for a crime make women a fair game for lecherous men?

Women are not safe on the streets, in their workplaces, their educational institutions, or their own homes, and now, neither are they safe in a jail. Various studies done within Indian prisons have concluded that a majority of women prisoners are Adivasis, Dalits or from other marginalised communities that are being criminalised. Their social and economic situation makes them vulnerable, being unable to defend themselves legally and financially. After facing a harrowing life outside prison (which probably took them on the path to their crime) these women have to face more of it under the protection of the law.

Male staff sexually abusing women prisoners

A shocking revelation came to light by Lawyer Tapas Kumar Bhanja, a lawyer appointed as amicus curiae by the Calcutta High Court to look into overcrowding in prisons in the state.

In a written petition to the Calcutta High Court about West Bengal correctional homes on Thursday, February 8, 2024, he expressed concern about the disturbing issue of women prisoners getting pregnant while in custody. It’s an estimate that almost 196 babies have been delivered throughout the state.

The amicus curiae also went on to describe his experience of visiting one such facility in West Bengal and how he witnessed the birth of fifteen children and a pregnant lady, bringing attention to the sexual exploitation of women in these facilities. He visited the women’s correctional home along with the inspector general of correctional homes and the secretary of the district legal services authority.

Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam and Justice Supratim Bhattacharya took the matter seriously and ordered a hearing before a division bench specialising in criminal cases.

Although the Model Prison Manual 2016 published by Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, dictates important guidelines to be followed in a prison for women, they’re still dealing with following challenges.

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Challenges faced by Women in Prisons

In India, of the total 1,401 prisons, only 18 are exclusively for women, housing 2,985 female prisoners. A majority of women inmates are housed in women’s enclosures of general prisons.

Lack of women staff

It all comes down to the lack of female staff in the prisons in our country. The lack of female staff leads to male staff being given the responsibility and thus access to the prison. Women prisoners need gender-specific services to be catered by female staff.

Lack of proper sanitation and hygiene

While the prison manual prescribes one toilet for ten women, that is rarely the observed case. Also, the lack of water makes sanitation efficiency hard to manage.

Lack of regular jail visiting advocates

As per the new National Prison Manual, State governments are to appoint jail-visiting advocates, set up legal aid clinics in every prison, and provide legal literacy classes in all prisons to ensure prisoners have access to legal aid. Visits by members of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to various prisons have revealed that many jails do not have a legal aid cell, and very few prisoners have accessed legal aid.

Regular physical and sexual violence

Incidents of violence, including sexual violence by inmates and authorities, have been reported from across the country. However, official reports underestimate the prevalence of violence because prisoners fear retaliation, as they are forced to stay in the same place as their perpetrators. In 2017, Manjula Shetye was allegedly beaten to death in Byculla jail by prison staff.

No facilities to take good care of children of inmates

Children up to the age of six are allowed to live with their mothers in prisons if no other arrangements for their care can be made. As per a 2009 BPR&D report, proper facilities for biological, psychological and social growth of the child, crèche, and recreational facilities are not available in every prison. In many cases, an adequate special diet for children is not always provided besides a glass of milk.

What measures are proposed to curb this and improve their lives?

Prohibit entry of male staff into women prisoner areas

In response to multiple pregnancies and subsequent numerous childbirths in the correctional facilities for women, the amicus curiae proposed preventive measures such as a ban on entry of all male staff members in female correctional facilities.

Betterment of daily life 

The amicus curiae also proposed other measures for the betterment of the lives of women inmates.

He requested all the district judges, who chair the Board of Visitors, to tour the correctional facilities under their scope and take note of the number of pregnant women and women with children born in the prison.

Pregnancy testing before admitting woman prisoner

He also proposed for all West Bengali police stations to conduct pregnancy testing before taking in the women inmates, so that any pregnancy later is a clear indication of sexual abuse. This could possibly prevent or at least minimise their sexual exploitation in the facilities.

Training of all staff in empathy

It’s clear that establishing rules is not enough. Prison staff needs to be trained in empathy for their charges. Women in prison have a hard life as it is, staying away from their families, children, and loved ones; they don’t need to be taken advantage of and robbed of their dignity in a place where they’re supposed to be safe. Steps need to be taken to implement already established rules and severe punishment for violating the rules.

Image source: by CraigRJD from Getty Images Signature Free for Canva Pro

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Anuradha Dev

I'm a reader and a teacher. My love for books and kids has kept me occupied till now. Now I want to venture into writing to pen down my thoughts. Thanks for reading. read more...

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