Ram Singh's death: Rape and ugly sexual violence in Indian jails

Ram Singh's death tells the world the horrifying truth that has been unaddressed for decades - sodomy and rapes in jails, not just in India, but across the world. It happens in very corner of the world, even in the most rights-sensitive and well-equipped jails.

G Pramod Kumar March 12, 2013 14:58:51 IST
Ram Singh's death: Rape and ugly sexual violence in Indian jails

It’s so brutally ironical that Ram Singh, perhaps the most hated man in India today for allegedly masterminding the Delhi gangrape, became a victim of rape himself. We still don’t know how he died, but his father has made it public that Singh had been raped in jail.

Not just him, even his co-accused had been raped as well.

Retributive justice, some say, because the accused had been made to realise how savage it is to rape somebody in a space horrifyingly dominated by a mob. They did it to the girl in a bus, and got it back in a jail. Apparently, the situation is so bad that the remaining co-accused have reportedly told the lawyer that they preferred being shot at to being sent back to Tihar.

Nobody might cry for the rapists and what they are going through in jail.

Fair enough. That is how public anger works.

Ram Singhs death Rape and ugly sexual violence in Indian jails

Agencies.

But what it really tells the world is a horrifying truth that has been unaddressed for decades - sodomy and rapes in jails, not just in India, but across the world. It happens in very corner of the world, even in the most rights-sensitive and well-equipped jails because it is part of prison-behaviour, particularly when so many criminals are together at one place fighting for supremacy, space, sex, food, entitlements and even mere survival.

Interestingly, this has nothing to do with general homosexual behaviour in people. For instance, in east Africa, where gay-sex is so much undercover and even criminalised, sexual assault of men by other men in jails is a big problem. As this BBC report noted, it’s so rampant in many parts of Africa. The most affected are the new prisoners, because they are “fresh” and are subjects that need to be subjugated and controlled.

An Ugandan jail chief had said it was his biggest headache. The situation is similar in, say China, Thailand or Israel. It’s no different in India as well.

Although we have seen it time and again in Hollywood movies (remember Tim Robbins being sodomised in Shawshank Redemption), in America it has reached epidemic proportions. Last year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics summed up the numbers in the country’s “first ever national estimates of the prevalence of sexual victimisation” under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

Yes, America under George Bush had passed a law to counter prison rapes because the scene is so bad!

The American data shows that 9.6 percent of the inmates (nearly one in ten) have been sexually assaulted and if one is a bisexual, the rate went up to 34 percent. For gay men, it is still higher at 39 percent. Interestingly, it is not only the other jail mates who raped men, but also the prison staff. In the majority of the latter, the inmates didn't resist because of the power the staff wielded.

In India, an Indian Journal of Medical Research article in 2010 quoted figures from Arthur Road jail in Mumbai in which 72 per cent of the inmates interviewed said sex between men was so common. About 11 percent said, they have had sex with other men.

And this trend is not new. The People’s Union of Civil Liberties had this to say about Tihar way back in 1981: “When a young boy enters, the prisoners have been known to have bid a price for the boy. The price offered is in terms of 'bidis', soap or charas. Often prisoners have been divided into camps and the groups have fought each other on the issue of who shall have the new entrant.”

This is similar to what BBC had reported from east Africa. The trend is so common across all the continents, and in a large number of cases the trauma of a rape leads to assaults, murders, life-long psychological illnesses and suicides. There are a million personal accounts of rapes of males in jails that is out there!

Why does this happen and how come this cannot be controlled, if not prevented?

There are a hundred reasons cited by innumerable research studies for men raping men in jails.

A man who was a prison officer for 21 years blogged: “The general closed, masculine, aggressive, hierarchical and network-like social setting makes the prisoners: closed (introversion, keeping personal feelings in secret), masculine (more active, more dominant, not caring, not passive), aggressive (violent, intolerant, sometimes bestial, brutal, burned out, cynic etc.), dependent (hospitalized, hyper-vigilant, tranquilizer and body shape addict etc.) and builds up a gang identity and destroys the pre-incarceration identity.”

In simple words, raping another man becomes part of a dominant prison identity for reasons ranging from power and criminality, to sexual gratification. Often, young and new entrants are the victims. Some recover, while some are traumatised for ever.

So how does one handle this when the whole world is struggling to find a solution?

The most obvious is to keep a close watch, both physically and electronically, but that is exactly like enforcing law and order in a city. In a place that is teeming with criminals, it is really impossible unless you have surveillance and preventive steps for each.

In the jail system, especially with a stated intent of reforms, the inmates themselves acquire authority and superiority from officials. When they themselves either indulge in or sanction such behaviour, the jailers can do precious little.

Even if they can, it will only amount to heaping more punishment on the criminals that serves no purpose. In jails, conventional deterrents do not work for hardened criminals. Probably that is why despite having one jail official for nine inmates, the rape and death of Ram Singh couldn’t be prevented.

So, the only practical way is to keep the jails less crowded - stop indiscriminate jailing of people. Indian jails are filled beyond capacity - the average occupancy is about 112% and in Tihar, where Ram Singh died, it ranges from 314% to 150% across its various units.

The national average is misleading because in some states, they are sparsely filled while in some such as UP and Madhya Pradesh, they are terribly overcrowded.

Is this overcrowding necessary?

Not at all, had our criminal justice system been faster.

Indian jails are crowded not with convicts, but under-trials - people who are detained till their fate is decided by courts. Close to 65 percent of the prisoners in India are under-trials, which can include even a petty pickpocket who doesn't have a lawyer.

Given the notoriously slow pace of trials and delivery of justice in India, they are condemned to be in jails for long periods of time, whether they are finally found guilty or not. If the country’s courts can clear the cases faster, our jails will be much safer.

In Delhi, the average number of under-trials is so high - 74.49, which is higher than the national average. While it houses 12,000 convicts, about 45,000 people enter its jails every year, while an equal number leave. Had the 45,000 been reduced by even half, it could make Tihar a much safer and manageable place.

The high incidence of rapes in jails has to be read with another fact: about 65 % of the under-trials belong to the 16-18 age-group while the convicts are almost twice as old. The chances of sexual abuse of the under-trials therefore is very high. As the Tihar figures show, a large number of the under-trial prisoners finally leave the jail declared innocent by the courts, but not before potentially being raped by one or many men.

Not surprisingly, about 6-8 per cent of the inmates in Tihar are HIV positive while the national average is below 1 percent. If 74.9 percent of the inmates are under-trials, it is highly probable that majority of the people with HIV in jails are also under-trails. Is it fair?

To address this issue, we have to work backwards - reduce the number of inmates by clearing the cases faster, applying serious discretion in sending people to jail even on trumped up charges, preventing misuse of law by police and others and most fundamentally, at least try prison reforms and social transformation that reduces crime in society.

But then, it leads to a more fundamental issue of socio-economic equality!

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