My Field Visit to an Indian Prison

Blood, adrenaline, and lots of coffee ran through my veins as I stood outside the gates of a women’s prison. Most of my limited knowledge about the prison systems comes from Orange is the New Black, a fictional Netflix show based on a privileged New Yorker ending up in a women’s prison when convicted of a past crime. The show is wonderfully entertaining and examined many issues surrounding this system such as racial discrimination and the privatization of prisons. Despite binging the seasons, I felt unprepared and nervous for this field visit because this prison in the show was not the same as the prison in front of me. 

From the most recent prison statistical data from 2015, only 17,834 out of 419,623 people in the Indian prison system are women. Yet, the number of women prisoners rose from 3.3% of all prisoners in 2000 to 4.3% in 2015. In spite of that, the prison infrastructure has not grown to match the new influx. Out of 1401 prisons in India, only 18 are exclusively for women, housing 2985 female prisoners (Prison Statistics India, 2015). The majority of the women prisoners are housed in women’s enclosures of general prisons. Overcrowding is a serious issue faced by women prisoners.

A case study on the Jaipur Central Prison for Women found that the women in this system usually belong to economically and socially disadvantaged parts of society and are vulnerable to detainment due to their inability to pay fines and post bail. Out of the 150 respondents, 128 came from families with incomes less than Rs 5000 per month while only nine belonged to a better-off section with family income higher than Rs 15,000. This significant economic barrier affects how women enter and stay in Indian prisons (Kaushik & Sharma, 2009). 

Female prisoners face more obstacles within the prison system than their male counterparts because they have access to certain resources in the prison system that women are excluded from. Nevertheless, there are calls by various stakeholders to improve the conditions or experiences of women prisoners. For example, the Model Prison Manual, drafted by the Bureau of Police Research and Development, calls for women doctors, superintendents, a separate kitchen for women inmates that are housed with male inmates, and pre- & post-natal care for pregnant inmates. However, none of these guidelines, and other ones are consistently implemented across district and state jails, leading to the inhumane conditions where these women are placed in. 

These women, either convicted or under trial, are suffering. That is a fact. Because of their current and future struggles, this group of women must be educated and given methods to cope with their traumatic experiences that they can rely on both within and outside the prison system which is where we come in.

Prajwala Sangham is a non-profit organization that leads reflective learning processes for the personal development of women through the medium of art and theatre. Based on the design and context employed, our methodology includes interactive exercises, music, dance, meditation, and improvisational theatre forms such as playback theatre, drama therapy, and psychodrama. Though most activities are based in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, our workshops have extended all over India. 

We are currently engaged in the Sthree Kala Project, meaning Women Dream in Telugu. This two-year project empowers women in the police, prisons, villages, and educational institutions within the areas of identity, safety, hygiene, and health. With our unique process, the women beneficiaries engage in the process of self-awareness, empowerment, and growth. My project at Prajwala Sangham supports their impact assessment and business development, requiring me to attend all their programs. 

The purpose of this workshop is to help women prisoners rediscover and reintegrate their life with renewed hope and faith through the medium of art and theatre. For this workshop, around 80 women prisoners attended and participated. Our module included a warm-up of body stretching and games for the women to energize themselves and gain a sense of familiarity with each other. One of our theatre artists performed a solo theatre piece to a story about the pain one feels after losing their support system. This theatre piece allowed the women to reconnect to their emotions surrounding themselves and their families and provided the space for them to recollect their memories. Then, we performed fluid sculptures, a non-narrative short form of Playback Theatre. Here, an audience member will describe a feeling, and the actors come forward one by one, performing repeated sounds and movements to add on what is already there. They can use words to create an organic moving shape, expressing an aspect of the audience member’s feelings while music plays in the background. Fluid sculptures are used to build dialogue and create solidarity within the group. Lastly, we enacted a story from a prisoner, depicting her suffering from the lack of connection with her family. 

Throughout the session, the prisoners had the chance to reflect on themselves and their relationship with others. They were able to experience and express their hidden traumas within a group setting, gaining a sense of solidarity and the strength to move forward to overcome their struggles. There were tears and laughter, both continued well after the workshop ended. Many participants spoke about how they felt connected to their loved ones, especially to their children. 

We, as in Prajwala Sangham, understand the importance of listening to the women’s stories and validating their experiences. I noticed that when we gave the space for the participants to speak, they would not stop. All they wanted was the support that we could provide in our workshop for a few hours, though it would never be enough. Even though the prisoners come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, hometowns, castes, etc, they all had similar feelings among each other, as well with our other target groups. The main difference is that women in the prison are confined in walls while the other women’s limitations on freedom are not as concrete. 

As we were preparing to leave, a group of women took a specific interest in me, a non-resident Indian who can speak the local language (Telugu). They had a motherly aspect to them, asking me about my family, if I was eating properly, etc. We were engrossed in a conversation where I learned more about them. One woman had two children, both married with children that she missed dearly. Another woman wanted to learn how to do tailoring so when she leaves, she can have a job to support herself. The last woman, the younger of them, asked me to talk to the prison officials about moving her legal case faster. We carried this conversation as they walked me to the gates of the facility. 

When I took that step outside, it was like I left their reality. I turned around only to see all their eyes on me. That mental image haunts me because it reminds me that whenever I work with marginalized communities, I always have the ability to leave their reality and enter my own reality, one filled with comforts. 

I still think about that group of women: if they have seen their loved ones, achieved their dreams, or are any step closer to being released. I have contemplated how they felt seeing me leave, and I’m unsure if I want to know how they truly felt. I wonder if they hope one day, they too will be able to walk out just as I did. 

References

Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, National Crime Records Bureau. “Prison Statistics India 2015.” Prison Statistics India 2015. ncrb.gov.in/statpublications/psi/Prison2015/Full/PSI-2015-18-11-2016.pdf.

Kaushik, Anupma, and Kavita Sharma. “Human Rights of Women Prisoners in India.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies 16.2, 2009, pp. 253–271., doi:10.1177/097152150901600205.

Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Bureau of Police Research and Development. “Model Prison Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Prisons in India .” Model Prison Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Prisons in India, 2003.

Osmanski, Steph. “‘Orange Is the New Black’ Has Been Around for Almost 5 Years: See the Litchfield Inmates Then and Now!” Life & Style Magazine, November 6, 2017. https://www.lifeandstylemag.com/posts/orange-is-the-new-black-then-and-now-145797/

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Nithya graduated from Santa Clara University (SCU) in 2018 with a double major in Public Health Science and Psychology. While at SCU, she was awarded the Global Social Benefit Fellowship from the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Nithya and her research partner conducted action research to assess the social impact of Awaaz.De, a Gujarat-based social enterprise that created a mobile communication platform for other organizations in the development sector. They travelled to three Indian states, visited over 20 communities, and conducted 55 interviews over the span of two months. With that research, they developed social impact case studies detailing how clients use Awaaz.De's services, prepared recommendations to Awaaz.De, and created a mobile social impact assessment framework. Thrilled to return back to India as an AIF Clinton Fellow, Nithya can’t wait to return to Hyderabad, hone her Telugu speaking skills, and reconnect with family. In her spare time, she loves watching the Golden State Warriors, petting baby goats, and mastering the art of making dosas.

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