Apr 12, 2010
Incarcerated women in Maharashtra’s Yerawada prison will soon be able to move out of the cramped, unhygienic cells as the construction of India’s first open prison for women is underway. Women prisoners engaged in creating the new space will get paid and also a reduction in their sentence.
Yerawada prison is a place of contrasts
In one part of the 17-acre complex near the city of Pune in the Indian state of Maharashtra, 300 incarcerated women barely see the light of day and live in cramped, unhygienic conditions.
But another part of the prison is currently undergoing a makeover. Here, women will soon be allowed to roam the premises and farmland in relative freedom.
This will be India's first open prison for women.
Such jails have existed for men in India since the 1950s - the idea is that well-behaved inmates are transferred to the facility as a reward for their good behaviour after serving a few years of their sentence.
The female prisoners at Yerawada's open jail will get paid employment outdoors - mostly agricultural work. More importantly, the remainder of their sentence will be cut by half.
However, the facility will only be available to convicted prisoners and not those awaiting trial.
Government officials say that they have selected most of the candidates for the 50 female places available in Yerawada's open jail. Needless to say, demand to get in is overwhelming.
Yerawada is one of the oldest central prisons in the country, and its 17 acres of fields means that there is plenty of agricultural work to keep open prisoners occupied.
"Selected women inmates will mostly work in fields during the day and return to barracks in the evening. Our agricultural officer will train them. They get to step out, learn a skill, make some money and get their sentences reduced," Inspector General (Prisons) Uddhav Kamble explained.
Officials say there is hardly any risk of prisoners escaping because to do so would jeopardise their stay in the prison and their sentences being commuted.
The authorities do not allow journalist’s access to prisoners held at Yerawada but one former inmate of the closed jail says that an open prison has to be a good idea.
Bharati's time in prison was characterised by painful memories which she says have scarred her life and the lives of her children.
She says that her husband was an alcoholic and one day returned home, collapsed and died. She was accused of killing him.
She was arrested, imprisoned and her two sons were left to cope with these events on their own. It took months before she was released on bail and the case is still pending in court.
Bharati's difficulties in jail were similar to those faced by countless other female prisoners.
"Sometimes you get dragged into fights of inmates... I was constantly worried about my children. I could only meet them only once a week or two. It was difficult as there was no-one to organise money for my defence.
"Many women were like me and would have relished the opportunity of a more liberal prison regime."
One prison official who looks after around 300 closed inmates is also enthusiastic about the concept.
"Can you imagine how they would feel to step out in fresh air? They are allowed out of the barracks but it is only within the high walls of the prison. To be able to get out and work in the open will do wonders for these women. It will enable them to see the road, buildings and other people. It will help them tremendously."
Currently male convicts detained within the Yerawada complex grow aubergines, tomatoes, corn and spinach. The vegetables are sent to the jail kitchen.
Medha Gadgil is the government official who pushed for female open jails. She told the BBC that female prisoners had been deprived of key benefits.
"There are four such jails in Maharashtra alone for men and many more in other states. Now women convicts will also be able to get the benefits," she said.
Social activists say that the move to introduce women's open prisons is long overdue. India is a country where many female inmates are in prison because of crimes they have committed in response to domestic violence at home.
They say that much more effort needs to be made to rehabilitate female offenders.
Bharati echoes this thought. "Working in the fields will make women feel better," she said. "It should be extended to all women prisoners - convicts and those awaiting trial - so that they can start work after being released."