Sunday, 29 July 2012

Hard life for high-profile inmates in jail

Former telecom minister A. Raja spends his day in a 15x10 feet cell in Jail No. 1 of Delhi's Tihar Jail. The cell doesn't have a bed. Charged with facilitating a Rs 1,76,000-crore scam, he sleeps on the floor using two of the six blankets given to him as a mattress. Says Neeraj Kumar, director general prisons (Delhi), "Inside the jail, no one is a VIP. High-profile prisoners have been extended no extra facilities unless permitted by the court." In Raja's case, the court has granted him permission to get home-cooked food twice a week. Two conditions come attached: it should contain no curry and fruits.

Ex. Satyam Boss Ramalinga Raju

Courts have been more generous to some other high-profile prisoners. A court directed the Central Prison in Chanchalguda in Hyderabad to accord "special remand prisoner status" to former Satyam boss M. Ramalinga Raju. Prisoners have the right to apply for this status on the basis of their social standing and economic profile before being incarcerated. There are less than 20 prisoners in the special category among the 13,000 lodged in different jails across Andhra Pradesh.

The special status entitles Raju to better living conditions. Unlike Raja, Raju has a cot, a mattress, two pillows, a mosquito net, a reading table with a chair, and an additional easy chair in his prison cell. The 'special status' also enables him to get fruits, something that is denied to an ordinary remand prisoner like Raja. Raju is also entitled to fresh clothes and reading material. Like ordinary prisoners, he is allowed two visitors a week. Other privileges to those granted special status by a court include a barber on call. Ordinary remand prisoners have to wait for their turn: there are usually only 15 barbers for every 1,000 prisoners.
Haldiram co-owner Prabhu Shankar Agarwal

Life in prison, even with special privileges, is worse than in a hospital bed. Nine months after he was first imprisoned, Raju was moved to an air-conditioned ward in Hyderabad's Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences after he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and a heart ailment. He stayed there for 10 months before being granted bail by the high court. The Supreme Court cancelled his bail 84 days later and sent him back to prison.
Manu Sharma, sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Jessica Lall, managed to get parole for two months in September 2009 to look after his ailing mother. Keen to make up for the lack of a social life in prison, Sharma hit Delhi's clubbing circuit with a vengeance only to get into a public brawl at a nightclub. His parole was cancelled.
Raja, for the moment, seems content with socialising within Tihar's walls. Prison guards saw him in conversation with R.K. Sharma, a former IPS officer convicted for the murder of journalist Shivani Bhatnagar.
According to Kumar, the prisoners are given ample opportunity to get together. "There are designated hours when prisoners are allowed to visit the common room or the sports field," he says. Sharma is reportedly an enthusiastic sportsperson and captains his jail's Twenty20 cricket team. Tihar Jail also has a television in each barrack.
Jesica Lall murder convict Manu Sharma

Some VIP prisoners help improve the quality of life of their fellow inmates. Prabhu Shankar Agarwal, co-owner of the Rs 500-crore Haldiram Bhujiawala snacks and eateries chain, spent a number of months in Kolkata's Alipore Central Jail, accused of conspiring to kill a tea-stall owner, before he was released on bail last September. He spent his jail term doing what he knew best: supervising the kitchen. "He contributed to improve the quality of food which was being served in our canteen. Many times he would make snacks such as samosas and kachoris to demonstrate to others," says an official at the jail. He trained at least 10 people in the art of cooking.

Social hierarchies don't just dissolve in jail. A Tihar prisoner who was released three months ago says, "The social profile outside the jail prevails inside the jail. Some privileges get accorded in a clandestine manner." He blames the lower level prison staff for this. In 2009, for example, Tihar officials recovered prohibited Internet data cards and pen drives from jail numbers 2, 3 and 4. In 2010, authorities recovered nine cellphones and 11 sim cards. A number of counter-measures like mobile phone jammers and cctv surveillance were installed after these incidents. Says the former prisoner: "Tihar jail is much better than other prisons, but high-profile prisoners can still buy their comfort."
For a high-profile prisoner, Raja seems to have caused minimal problems for the authorities and made few demands. Says Kumar: "He is cooperative and we have no issues with him." Raja follows the jail routine to the tee. He gets up at 5 a.m. and arrives punctually for breakfast at 6 a.m. At 7 p.m., he lines up with the other prisoners for a headcount before all are locked in their respective cells for the night.
"Jail is a great leveller," says Kumar. But a privileged few will always be more equal than others.

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