Women Living Behind Bars Tell Their Stories of Hope and Way Out

What do Meenakshi, Sarojini and Rakkamma have in common? All three are Tamil speaking, under 40 years of age, and living under one roof. No, they are not related but inmates of the Women’s Cell at the Kottayam Sub-Jail. Accused of petty theft, all three are migrants, among the many who come to Kerala from neighbouring states. During the summers they come here to make some quick money on the streets but end up behind bars even faster. Of the 11 inmates in this sub-jail – all of them undertrials – nine have landed up in jail this way. Although extremely reluctant to speak, in the end they all have the same story to tell.

Rakkamma, 35, a native of Pollachi in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu, comes to central Kerala for a few months to beg in the small town of Changanasserry. She comes here with her three-year-old toddler, leaving behind four school-going children, who are being looked after by her mother and husband, an umbrella hawker.

This summer, Rakkamma’s 12-year-old daughter and mother decided to spend time with her, sharing her dingy shack located at one of the public grounds in town. On the day she was arrested, Rakkamma and her daughter were begging at different points near the busy bus station when “suddenly, there was a hue and cry and before I knew it, the crowd was dragging my daughter to the police station.” Eventually, Rakkamma says she was arrested instead of her daughter.

Immediately afterwards this, her mother left town with her daughter. Rakkamma is now alone and left to fend for herself. She doesn’t even know who her court-appointed lawyer is, let alone his contact number. “No one has come for me in the last two months. I don’t know how long I’ll be here,” she says.

Meenakshi, too, is crushed because no one from her family has bothered to look her up at the sub-jail. She has three children who live with her mother in Chennai. “They haven’t come even once. I have no one to help me. Maybe its better they don’t see me like this,” she says. Meenakshi and her 19-year-old married sister, Sarojini, were nabbed from the bus stop at Pampady, a village in Kottayam. She insists that they are innocent. “I had only picked up that chain from the ground when everyone just pounced on me and my sister and took us to the station,” she says.

According to Ratnakumari, the jail matron, some of the women undertrials at the sub-jail are victims of a huge begging racket being controlled by a gang leader and his agents. These agents always ensure that the women are released eventually. “One agent visits an inmate, claiming to be her brother and, two months later, he is back to visit another one of his so-called sisters,” she says.

According to Ratnakumari, these men visit the jail to find out the name of the appointed lawyer, the court schedule and the bail bond money. They then do what is necessary to get the women out on the streets again. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship – the women earn a steady daily wage, while those who run the operation get the women’s earnings. Meenakshi, for instance, reveals that she can earn around Rs 300 a day when she begs with her toddler. A toddler accompanied by a ten-year-old girl fetches up to Rs 200 per day.

Jayashankar, an advocate at the Kerala State Legal Service Authority at Kottayam, argues that he is for the police deporting these migrant petty criminals back to their places of origin. His reasons are pretty straightforward: First, the court procedures are tedious and costly; then, of course, there is a serious space crunch in the women’s jail, with only three cells available. Accommodating these women poses a serious problem. Third, and most important, is the fact that poverty is the only reason why they attempt to steal unlike professional criminals. Says Jayashankar, “Most arrive here by default. Either they have lost all their money and cannot buy a return ticket and so stick around and get caught while stealing. Or they come as a couple to work in Kerala and after a ugly domestic spat, the wife finds herself abandoned with the children and no means to return home. She then resorts to stealing.”

According to Jayashankar, most women migrants who turn out to be first-time offenders, rarely return to Kerala once they are acquitted. However, as he points out, acquittals are very rare in a crime of theft because the evidence recovery has already happened. “This means that these women have to serve a seven-year sentence,” he reveals.

The Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sections 379 and 380 state that attempted theft and theft can earn a sentence of three and seven years respectively, if there is a conviction. These are both non-bailable offences, meaning the bail can be set only at the discretion of the court depending on the nature of the offence. The undertrials are taken to court every 15 days, which is the remand period under Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), and returned to jail until the trial date is set, carried out and verdict declared.

“What we need is classification of crime and criminals in our jail system,” says Jayashankar. Habitual offenders, first-time offenders and teenage offenders should be kept in separate jails. “A first-time offender should not be allowed to be in close proximity with habitual offenders because she ends up getting drawn into criminal networks and committing even worse crimes,” he believes. Also, a criminal’s detention space should depend on the nature of a crime. “It is not right to have a woman accused of infanticide, for instance, to share the same cell with another accused of theft,” adds Jayashankar.

The ideal way out, of course, is rehabilitation. The nuns at one of Kottayam’s popular convents have attempted, quite successfully, to train some of the acquitted women inmates to earn a living through domestic work and sewing. NGOs, too, have visited the Women’s Cell to conduct counselling sessions.

While life outside the prison walls is tough and punishing, owing to poverty and destitution, life behind them is no easy ride either. These women pay a very heavy price for their incarceration, physically, mentally and emotionally. Imagine not knowing when you’d finally be set free; imagine living without the children for whom you decided to steal, constantly worrying about their well-being; imagine falling ill and no one really caring to see what’s wrong with you.

A tearful Ammalu, 25, says, “We do it [pick pocket] only to save our children from starvation.” Today, her three-year-old is being looked after in an orphanage in Kottayam, but says Ammalu’s ‘friend’ and cellmate, “We were told that her daughter is crying for her mother every day.” Of course, there’s really nothing the helpless mother can do other than spend her days pining for her baby.

How do these inmates spend their days in custody? “We simply talk. We eat our three meals. We cry ourselves to sleep,” states Meenakshi, the most verbal of the three. There’s no bad behaviour or other misconduct. Ratnakumari vouches for their discipline, “I haven’t had any problem with them so far. They keep themselves and their room clean.”

Meenakshi, Sarojini and Rakkamma will soon be produced in court. But today none of them expect a miracle. “The judge will look up, write something down and then put it away,” says a dejected Meenakshi, adding that this has been the routine every 15 days.

Despair is evident in the very language of these three women. The walls that surround them have come to represent their very existence.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.