Gender bias behind bars: Why are there so few open prisons for women inmates?

Sharanya Gopinathan

Hearing a case on the barbaric conditions in over a thousand Indian prisons (trust me, you don’t want to know) last month, the SC enthusiastically called for “encouraging the establishment of [more] open prisons”. An open prison is basically like a campus without locks and bars, where the inmates can come and go as they please (there's minimal supervision) so long as they report back to the prison every evening. They can work, receive visitors, in some cases live with their families, and most importantly, serve much shorter and some-times even half sentences.

So not only could establishing more open prisons take a huge load off of our already over-burdened prison system, but as lawyer Smita Chakraburtty observed in a recent interview, open prisons could be the key to shifting from a retributive to a rehabilitative justice system: one that reforms and readies convicts for regular life back in society instead of a system that hardens them instead. Open prisons are a great way to reward good behaviour in non-habitual offenders, and they’ve been proven to result in more cooperative, well-adjusted, rehabilitated and mentally stable prisoners.

Too bad they’re only for men in India.

Representational image of women prisoners. Reuters

Representational image of women prisoners. Reuters

Back when doing research on open prisons in the 1980s, legal scholar Upendra Baxi said it was notoriously difficult to find any data at all on these jails, even for the government’s own research purposes itself, because states don’t keep clear records of their functioning. Two decades later, it doesn’t feel like much has changed — there’s shockingly little data available on open prisons, and what's available paints a pretty grim picture.

The latest NCRB data on prisons in India from 2015 shows that of the 3,789 inmates in open prisons, only 109 are women. While the numbers might have changed a bit by now, it’s clear that there are more men than women in open jails. In fact, of the 63 open jails in the country, only four accept women inmates at all: Yerawada Open Jail and the Women’s Open Prison in Trivandrum are exclusively for women, and the Durgapura and Sanganer Open Camps in Rajasthan do take in a few women inmates. The other 59 open prisons in India have no women at all.

It gets worse. This isn’t a simple case of inadequate infrastructure for women, or even bad execution, although that’s frustrating enough. It seems that in most states, women are actually explicitly barred in the admission criteria to open prisons in the first place.

Recently, the Delhi High Court heard a PIL filed by advocate Sunil Gupta, a former legal advisor at Tihar Jail, which sought the quashing of biased Delhi prison guidelines that arbitrarily excluded women from open and semi-open prisons. The Delhi High Court remarked that it set a bad precedent and that discriminatory guidelines shouldn't exist.

A closer look at some of the available literature on open prisons (and there’s woefully little out there) indicates that while the guidelines for admission into open prisons vary from state to state, this isn’t just a Delhi problem. One of the main guidelines across states for entry into open prisons is that you must not be a woman. Just because.

So when it comes to being selected to go to an open prison, and availing all the mental, physical, social and economic benefits associated with it, women in India almost literally don’t stand a chance. In fact, they suddenly find themselves in the same category as class one prisoners, people convicted of crimes like dacoity and drug dealing, and habitual offenders.

Incredibly, in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, people with “youthful or boyish” looks are also not allowed entry into open prisons. Some speculate that this is probably a guideline that comes from a terrible misunderstanding of the nature of sexuality in a bid to protect young men from homosexual advances in prison, but it also reflects how the baseline here is male. The rules consider highly specific threats to men, but don’t even seem to consider the possibility of women inmates and the needs and protections they would require. It’s because the working assumption is that only men deserve to go to open prisons.

The fact that women are denied the opportunity to go to open jails feels even more depressing when you look at some of the specific issues that affect them.

Firstly, there are some women prisoners who fall outside criminality as we generally see it — these women end up in jail because they reacted violently to continued abuse from their husbands, in-laws or family members. Psychologists and police officers working with women criminals point to the “different kinds of strains” that prompt women to commit crimes, and it’s also pretty telling that one of the most common charges against women in Maharashtra, which has the highest number of female prisoners, is “cruelty to husband or relatives”, which sounds like a murky charge that could likely tell a story of prolonged abuse.

These kinds of women are different from cold-blooded killers, profiteers and cruel criminals with the risk of recidivism, and point more to a glaring flaw in society than any dire criminal tendencies that need to be addressed in the women. Women like these are actually victims themselves, and it’s cruel to put them through the harsh punishments that are meant to rebuke and rehabilitate truly dangerous criminals who pose threats to society at large.

Secondly, given the fact that some women end up in jail because of abuse from their families, and several face ostracisation, abandonment and shame from them having gone to jail, many women have nowhere to turn to when they’ve served their sentences. Being allowed to earn money for their work in open prisons would help them stand on their own feet when released without being forced to turn to other avenues for money. This will also reduce psychological pressure when they have to go back to living their normal lives.

It’s also true that women face particular horrors in custody, from death and violence, men-tal and physical abuse, to sexual assault and other humiliating attacks by guards and prison officials (like when a Tumkur jailer filmed women prisoners and leaked it to the media, causing one inmate to attempt suicide). Experts say that conventional prison systems also force women into criminal or gang-related activities after prison for lack of other viable financial options and after prolonged association with hardened criminals. An open prison system, where there are no jailers and a less severe and violent power hierarchy, reduces the risk of abuse like this taking place against powerless women, and increases the chances of them settling back into regular society.

Open prisons also allow a lot more interaction with your family, and the outside world. The rules vary in different states and prisons, but in open prisons, subject to some regulations, you can live with your family full-time, or at least for one week a month. This would of course be a wonderful thing for women with children — not only would they be able to live with their children and families, but the kids also get to grow up in a much safer environment than a regular prison.

It’s clear that women stand a lot to gain from the system of open prisons, perhaps even more than men, considering their precarious position within society and the family. India’s exclusion of women from the open prison system sounds like it was designed for convenience – while the government might have wanted to try to improve prisoners’ conditions, they chose to do it by simply forgetting about the existence of women, or by putting their needs last. This is an approach we’re perhaps all guilty of when we put our battles into a hierarchy – have you ever heard someone prioritize women’s rights over gay rights over trans rights? If we’re going to try and take leaps forward by introducing cool systems like open prisons, let’s make sure we take the leap together.

The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine.

Updated Date: Oct 07, 2017 17:20 PM

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