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A Tribune Investigation
From Behind The Bars — III
Children suffer with mothers
Aditi Tandon
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, July 3
For the 50-odd children lodged in jails across Punjab, life will never take off the right way. Given a choice, they would have chased butterflies off the petals, spent hours trying to hold raindrops or just letting them stroke their faces. But inside the barracks where they live with their mothers, rain is a rarity. Very often, there’s not enough ground for it to fall…

Just as there’s not enough room for children - they sleep on cement slabs or hard beds as their mothers; eat the unappetising food their mothers eat and speak the abusive language other inmates speak. Prisoners by default, they lead adult lives, their talks loaded with legal terms and profanities.

No wonder, Anita, 27, lodged at Jalandhar Central Jail is sad that she delivered her first child as an undertrial. Sahil, just three-month-old has not yet seen his father, lodged in the men’s barracks right across. Nor has he had his share of sights and sounds that aid cognitive growth. Huddled up with 86 prisoners in unclean cells, he takes from the surroundings the best they can offer - dullness, monotony and pain.

Like Anita, mothers of six other children living here, too, are scared that their wards will only know a world of jail jargons. “We are helpless. Our families are also in jail. Who will raise the children?” asks Priya, 34, an undertrial, whose daughter Rohini, two, can’t tell a male from a female. She calls an odd male she encounters “auntyji”. “That’s because of growing up in a women’s cell, where children don’t get to see men”, explains Upneet Lalli, deputy director, Regional Institute of Correctional Administration, Chandigarh.

Here at Jalandhar jail, children have no toys, games or colours to trigger their cognitive growth, which is the highest in the first six years of life. Six is also the upper age limit which the Supreme Court of India has fixed for children who can stay in jails with their mothers. The Supreme Court, in fact, has directed the state governments to build a crèche and nursery in every jail.

But the Punjab government has built crèches only at Patiala, Amritsar and Ferozepur central jails. The authorities from Jalandhar, Bathinda, Gurdaspur, Sangrur and Hoshiarpur are supposed to transfer women with children to the nearest of the above locations. But they face trouble executing these orders, as women are unwilling to part from homes.

Rajni, living at Jalandhar jail with her son, says: “I will not go to Amritsar. My parents are too poor to visit me there. If I go, I will not even get the stock of raw vegetables my parents sometimes bring me,” she says.

The creches, wherever in place, are also in bad shape. They have no separate budget or teachers. At Ludhiana’s all-women jail, the teacher meant for adults runs the nursery as well. Moreover, there are no sweepers to clean the place. The result shows, as crèche looks dirty and drab, unable to hold children’s attention. “We are reeling under staff shortage. We have no rest,” says Snehjot, assistant superintendent at Ludhiana jail, which houses 20, the highest numbers of children, anywhere in Punjab jails.

Most superintendents feel every jail should have its own crèche, as directed by the apex court. “The special diet prescribed for children by the Supreme Court also needs to be strictly followed. Children need milk, fruits and vegetables to grow,” says L.S. Jakhar, superintendent, Bathinda Jail, admitting that things can get very tough for pregnant women.

In every jail, a gynaecologist visits only once a week, while pre and postnatal care remains poor. “When I was pregnant, I used to get some milk in addition to a routine dal-roti diet,” says Anita, whose delivery has left her very weak. Poorly fed and traumatised, she, like other mothers, is unable to properly tend to her child.

The affects of such neglect can be damaging, says clinical psychologist Kakli Gupta: “A child in confinement is impacted most by his mother’s state of mind. She’s the only major influence he has. Also, a child develops maximum emotional strength in the first five years. When things go wrong here, they can take years to mend.”

Studies by the Centre for Children of Incarcerated Parents in Pasadena, California, have shown that children of offenders are most likely among their peers to take to crimes. They tend to demonstrate defiance and aggression very early in life and by pre-adolescence they are expressing such behaviour at school through disruption and truancy.

DGP, Prisons, Punjab, Izhar Alam, however, feels that women and children in Punjab jails are well off, considering natural legal curbs and implications thereof: “We plan to further ease congestion by making new jails at Phagwara, Moga, Dasuya, Pathankot, Palti and some more locations. Ludhiana women’s jail is still underutilised.”

Women in jails, however, feel they would do better with some mental health support. They see counsellors as last links to a world of sanity and sense.

(Concluded)

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