Prison was wanting to breathe when somebody else had a finger up your nose.

Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song


Rabia Sheikh’s* eyes were swollen, her ears wouldn’t stop ringing, and her children were driving her mad. The last few days in police custody had been brutal. As she climbed out of the police van, she held ten-month-old Lara firmly on her hip and grabbed hold of Amir who was three. Rahim, the elder of the two brothers walked a few steps ahead. With the five-year-old in the lead, the Sheikh family entered Kalyan Central Prison.

A small table lay by the side of the towering yellow gates surrounded by a jailer, two officers and a file of prisoners. Some were made to squat on the ground waiting their turn. The paint was peeling off the walls, revealing blotchy crimson patches at the bottom, and the ceiling, 20 feet above, had turned black. The jailer rushed through each person jotting down the details in a thick ledger.

Name. Age. Crime.

Rabia heard numbers. 302, 420, 356.

When her turn came, she stumbled.

“Crime,” the jailer asked?

“I haven’t done it.”

“Nobody has.”

She had been booked for murder, atrocities against scheduled castes, and under laws for illegal emigration. This made little sense to her; not much did. Unable to sign her full name, she walked on bewildered, hearing words like undertrial and chargesheet for the first time.

Rabia was escorted to a large room with a small window and metal bars. There were two desks engulfed with papers and overburdened cabinets. A constable patted her children down. She was kind and made a joke out of it and Amir, interested in cops and robbers, enjoyed the encounter. When the kids were marched out, the constable turned to Rabia and asked her to undress.

“Your panties too,” she said.

Rabia stood with her hands and legs wide open as she was searched.

“Do you have ganja, charas?”

“No, no,” Rabia responded and set her sights firmly on Lara who had just learnt to stand.

She moved to the next person in khaki and he jotted down her valuables. She stripped off all her jewellery—ring, earrings and seven bangles. Then they took the little money she had. They even made her cut off Rahim’s earrings that his father, Kareem, had got him. She paused at a picture of Kareem standing proudly at a construction site with his shirt tucked inside. They took that too. She thought about her husband and the mess he had got them into since he disappeared.

“Where do you think you’ve come?” the jailer said as he scanned her bags.

So many clothes. Three saris. Biscuits. Maggi. Rabia didn’t answer. A few days in police lock-up had taught her it was better to remain silent.

When she was left with the bare minimum, she was taken to the big red doors that led to Circle 1 of Adharwadi Jail, the women’s barracks. The jailer walked ahead amid tall moss-covered walls. As they approached the door he turned to her and said with a big smile, “I’m going to show you the seaside.”

Past a giant billboard that advertises a high-rise with Kalyan’s first jacuzzi, in the heart of the town, is Kalyan Central Prison or Adharwadi Jail. Its 92 constables including 12 women, six officers, senior jailer, and superintendent watch over a prisoner population of 1,981, almost four times the sanctioned 540.

“We’re always outnumbered by those we try to control,” says Yusuf Sultan Sheikh, senior jailer.

The National Model Prison Manual 2016 forms the basic guidelines on the conduct of prisons, which states are expected to adopt into their own prison manuals. It states that there should be one guard for every six prisoners but during the day at Adharwadi Jail, there is one constable for 150 people and in the night, one constable watches over 500 people.

In May 2017, the Supreme Court noted the huge shortage of staff in almost every jail and urged state governments to fill up these vacancies. Visits by the National Human Rights Commission to over 100 jails have revealed a woeful lack of staff, particularly in smaller district prisons.

Female jailers in Kalyan speak of the tense environment in which they work.

“We do the time with the prisoners, from morning to night we try to fulfil roles which are beyond our ambit,” said a constable who has worked in Byculla women’s jail and Yerawada Open Jail in Pune. There are eight barracks known as circles. Seven house men where about 190 people sleep. Circle 1 houses the females. Right now it contains 113 women, 110 undertrials and three convicts. Twelve are mothers with children who legally live inside the jail until the age of six, if no arrangements for their care can be made. The age varies from state to state with the upper limit at six.

According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), at the end of 2015, 17,834 women were lodged in Indian prisons. At least half were in the age group 30-50, followed by 31.3 per cent in the 18-39 bracket. About 66 per cent were undertrials, 32 per cent convicts and foreign inmates accounted for 1.1 per cent of India’s women prisoners.

As per the 2016 figures, the number of convicted women with children was 400, while their children numbered 459. There were 1,192 undertrials with 1,409 children. Uttar Pradesh led with 451, followed by West Bengal (332), Bihar (171) and Madhya Pradesh (134). Maharashtra occupies sixth place with 110 women and 140 children and has the highest number of undertrial prisoners.

In an unprecedented move, the NCRB has failed to release figures after 2016. Its “Crime in India” report hasn’t been published since 2016 either.

“It is a matter of great concern that data isn’t being released. It is difficult to make any analysis or to understand the latest situation,” says Professor Vijay Raghavan from the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Scant data exists on the number of children with at least one incarcerated parent. A 2011 study by Vijay Raghavan and Roshni Nair that looked at Muslims in prisons in Maharashtra found that 47.8 per cent had children outside but a majority lived with their families. 

“They are the most vulnerable group yet they remain invisible. There is no formal recognition of children of incarcerated parents, not even in the JJ [Juvenile Justice] Act. Putting them in the category will make a lot of difference” says Sabika Abbas whose 2019 report looks at prisons in Haryana for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

There is no protocol to enquire from people who come in conflict with the law about the children they left behind. According to Lawrence Greenfield and Tracy Snell’s—researchers on female correction populations—study in the International Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics around 7 in every 10 women under “remedial authorise” have a child younger than 18.

Prison systems are primarily designed for men and are not equipped to address the needs of women, said Bharat Bhosle, superintendent, Kalyan Central Jail. Data supports this. Of the 17,834 women in Indian prisons, only 17 per cent lived in exclusively female prisons, while the majority were housed in female enclosures of general prisons.

Her body was there about a month; when we found her you could see her skull.

Before the prison and the lashings by police, an almond-eyed Bengali woman carried cement across a construction site. She was new on the job and had the attention of Kareem Sheikh, a contractor who had fallen for her. Days later, he wooed her, called her “meri Nepali,” and three months later they married in a no-frills ceremony in his bedroom on site. A qazi performed the Nikah and two months later she was pregnant with their first child.

By the third pregnancy, their life had turned ugly. One night he smashed the TV; one afternoon, he doused his bike in kerosene and threatened to set it on fire unless she gave him her savings. Meanwhile her landlady and the women on site gossiped about his affairs. When she confronted him, he swore by the Quran.

“They mean nothing to me,” he said. That week three of her saris went missing and by the time she was four and a half months pregnant, he went missing in mid-2013. His shadow caught up with her on April 1, 2014, when she was picked up from the market by police. She had a bag of potatoes, bitter gourd and  two vada pao for her hungry boys. They showed a photograph of her husband with another woman. He was wearing a sehra.

“Recognise him?” Investigating Officer Sagar Somnath Dhikale asked.

“But we aren’t even divorced,” she said.

They showed another picture, of a body with maggots crawling on the face. She immediately looked away. That’s when she learnt of Vimal Aisha Khan.

On the FIR, police viewed Kareem Sheikh as the suspect. Unable to locate him, they sent a team to West Bengal and when he couldn’t be found, they returned with a man who claimed to be his father though Rabia insists that Kareem’s father is dead. Her newfound father-in-law linked Rabia to the murder of Vimal on the third floor of a building in Manpada, Thane.

“Her body was there about a month; when we found her you could see her skull,” a constable said. The post mortem showed Vimal had been strangled with a pink scarf, her neck squeezed with such force that the muscles had haemorrhaged. For the three months police looked for her, Rabia lived a four-minute walk from Manpada police station. When they found her, police were surprised. “She was living normally,” said Dhikale, like nothing had happened.

Investigators believe Rabia had an accomplice called Arif, a former employee of her husband, who had helped Rabia navigate parenting as a single mother. It was he who helped her hide the body under a mattress, police claimed. They portrayed her as a bitter wife and Arif as a loyal follower angered by her husband’s disregard. The chargesheet also identifies him as her nephew. She claims she has no sister. Arif and Rabia’s paths crossed in the police station. The investigators said that he had made an extrajudicial confession implicating the duo in the murder. Arif like Rabia is also lodged in the Kalyan jail.

Despite the abuse, Rabia stuck to her story. On the night of the murder, Rabia was home with Lara who was down with a bad fever. Arif called on them and had given her medicines for the baby.

“How can I leave my sick child to go and kill someone?” she asked at Kalyan Jail. Her daughter, now almost five, scribbled with a pen on a piece of paper.

Investigators believe Rabia had an accomplice called Arif, a former employee of her husband, who had helped Rabia navigate parenting as a single mother. It was he who helped her hide the body under a mattress, police claimed.

Rabia’s chargesheet books her for murder. It also slaps Section 3(2)(v) in the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 that states “Whoever not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled tribe, commits any offence under the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860) punishable with imprisonment for a term of ten years or more against a person or property on the ground that such person is a member of Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or such property belongs to such member shall be punishable with imprisonment for life and with fine”, as Vimal belonged to a Scheduled Caste community. She is also booked under 3(a)6(a) of the Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950 that prevents foreigners from entering India by water, land or air except through places specified by the Central Government.

“They kept calling me a dancer and a foreigner,” says Rabia.

Her inability to speak Hindi meant she was viewed as a foreigner. When she asked to be allowed to nurse her daughter, a police officer whipped her on her lactating breasts.

“I stopped feeling like a human,” she says.

When the doors to Circle 1 opened, a look of disappointment fell upon the three detainees standing behind the jailer. The women had anticipated boys from the jail canteen and a delivery of biscuits and a bit of banter. Instead it was a woman with three children.

“Killed your husband?” Guddy asked. As the oldest resident of Circle 1, in for eight years, she held considerable sway over the prison staff. The question terrified Amir, the younger brother, and he began to sob. So now, ten-month-old Lara was in the hands of the officer who went about filling in another thick ledger.

“Where in Bangladesh are you from?” the officer asked while making faces at the baby in her arms.

Rabia struggled to find an answer since so much of her past was unknown to her. Her mother passed away when she was four months old and her father when she was nine. She’d been brought to Mumbai by a father’s friend from Kolkata before her tenth birthday and the city was the only home she had known. In broken Hindi, she said she was from a place close by, “about 40 rupees by auto from the jail”.

The officer demanded documents and Rabia produced a copy of Rahim’s birth certificate and her marriage certificate. That’s all she had managed to grab in the 20 minutes the woman constable had allowed when she returned to her house during her interrogation. The next morning she was produced in court which awarded judicial custody that landed her in Kalyan Jail. With so little to her name, she began to cry and Guddy reappeared and grabbed a glass of cold water from the fridge behind the jailer and gave it to Rabia.

One by one, the other women came forward. Most were dressed in colourful maxis, some wore a shalwar kameez. In a corner, about three women were dressed in the teal convicts are required to wear. One was tying a teal sari over a heavily embroidered zari blouse. Most undertrials were in for murder.

One girl was married off to a man 20 years older than her; he gagged her, suffocated her to the point where she couldn’t breathe during intercourse. This was a daily occurrence so she put 15 sleeping pills in his drink. He died that night and she turned herself in.

“At least now he won’t haunt me,” she told Rabia.

Another woman’s husband tormented her, burnt her with cigarettes, abused her family and threatened to run away with their children so she stabbed him. Her underage lover helped her throw the body in the Ulhas river thinking the current would carry him away. It didn’t. Her two children, then two and four, are witnesses and haven’t been allowed to meet their mother until they testify in court. She hasn’t seen them for three years.

“What sort of justice is this?” she asks.

But Rabia’s story was different and much to her surprise, some had read about it in a Thane newspaper following the murder mystery laced with betrayal, adultery and revenge. The Manpada murder had caused a stir. That a woman would kill her husband’s lover was ballsy and in this place ballsy women found respect. Plus taking a life placed you on top of a complex hierarchy followed only by prostitutes and drug dealers. Thieves languished at the bottom unless they’d committed an audacious crime.

Amir was off again and stopped in front of a mother and child. A Bengali woman helping Rabia settle in told her that the young girl’s mother had strangled her husband and Rabia cried again, this time because of guilt.

“Where have I put my children,” she said.

She was given a spot under the fan. She would later learn this was one of the most coveted spots but it made little difference. It was hot and sweaty and miserable all night. She watched her children sleeping back to back with not even the slightest room to wiggle.

The next morning, Rabia walked around the main courtyard. The prison was alive with colour. There were red, pink and blue plastic buckets outside the big lock-up. On the bars, women had put their clothes out to dry. A woman sobbed behind the large pink bandani dupatta that acted like a curtain. In the centre was an Ashoka tree, where a woman tied a braid for another. Behind them was a mural of the setting sun and the crashing waves—the seaside.

In the evening as the women stood in line to get thick rotis that her children were not accustomed to eating, Amir asked, “Where are we Ma?”

A hostel,” replied a woman from not far away and that’s what all the mothers called the jail.

The Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) contains special provisions for the arrest of women—prohibited after sunset and before sunrise (except with the prior permission of the judicial magistrate, and for cognizable offences and other serious crimes). Nine of 12 women with children arrested in Kalyan jail were picked up after sunset. In three cases the children did not know where their mother had disappeared. Though the CrPC states that provisions should be made for the custody of minor children of a woman at the time of arrest, in seven of the 12 cases no such provisions were made.  

Over the past decade, momentum has picked up for specific policies geared for safeguarding young children of incarcerated parents. From the minute a parent is arrested, the rights of children are to be protected.

The Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Code, 2006, requires police to inform relatives of the person who is arrested and the arrestee has the right to have a relative or a friend named by him informed of his arrest and the location of his prison.

In practice, these rules and policies are followed in the breach. When Rabia was picked up, the police did not follow any of these rules. She repeatedly informed them of her children alone at home but she was held until late into the night. When she returned, they had gone to sleep hungry. The two boys had placed little Lara between them and Rahim had his hand on his little sister as she slept.

A prison report published in 2018 by the Ministry of Women and Child goes so far as to state that a woman be allowed “a choice” in the selection of the prison bearing in mind her caretaking responsibilities. At the time of arrest in 2011, Guddy’s—a prisoner at Kalyan Central Jail—two children were taken away by her brother-in-law. The next time she saw her children was through video-conferencing in 2019. “What sort of laws prevent a mother from seeing her child?” she asks.  

The mothers of Circle 1 did their best to make the barrack child-friendly. They agreed to keep shoes in a neat row, a mishmash of battered Anna and Elsa crocs donated by a charity, yellow sports shoes and chappals in colours of the rainbow.

The Supreme Court in RD Upadhyay vs State of AP &Ors, 2006, noted that no separate or specialised medical facilities for children were available in jail and that in many states small children were living in sub-jails not equipped for them. The court said before sending a pregnant woman to jail, authorities must ensure that the particular jail has got minimum facilities for child delivery and pre and post-natal care for mother and child.

NHRC has taken cognisance of a case in which a pregnant prisoner was put in a prison in Odhisa on charges of being an “active” supporter of CPI (Maoist). Though lodged in jail she was permitted to deliver in a hospital. The day after she returned she was placed in solitary confinement with her newborn. Over the next nine years, she was moved around four jails with a child.

The mothers of Circle 1 did their best to make the barrack child-friendly. They agreed to keep shoes in a neat row, a mishmash of battered Anna and Elsa crocs donated by a charity, yellow sports shoes and chappals in colours of the rainbow. The children were young enough to be occupied by the yellow and red merry-go-round next to the Ashoka tree, the red swings opposite the water tap and a red slide from which they landed into a puddle. As creatures of routine, they fell into a steady rhythm to the prison timings.

On monotonous days, of which there were many, Rabia told her children that everyone has a story and the children loved gathering around Asha, a woman brought in on prostitution charges with two girls outside. She told them tales about the tall trees that rose almost as high as the walls, stories of escape much like children outside learn about Jack and the Beanstalk. Most children imagined a world from the little open space they saw above their heads; rising in front was a watch tower, a window to the outside world but the children couldn’t get their little heads around the high-rise in front of them, going up one floor after another.

“A prince lives there,” Asha told the girls who listened intently.

In the evenings, when the mothers would talk amongst themselves, they felt immense guilt, a sorrow for what their children couldn’t see.

“Imagine never seeing a star,” said Jyoti, a murder convict with a four-year-old daughter. Bharat Bhosle, the superintendent, would like to do more but he was overburdened with security concerns. Just two years ago, Adharwadi jail had made news when two young men climbed the CCTV wires and jumped over the wall to freedom.

“Imagine, 12 kids? How will I handle that?” he asked.

A study sponsored by the Planning Commission conducted in Lucknow in 2004 on female criminality and its effects on children states: “Jails are neither equipped with adequate infrastructure to accommodate children in a befitting manner, nor the staff is trained to handle the problems arising out of children living in jails. As a result all responsibilities fall on their mothers.”

“The staff are overwhelmed with security duties and court-related work. Women try their best but the need for qualified social workers cannot be over-emphasised,” says Meeran Borwankar, IPS officer who retired as DG Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD).

Rabia’s children adjusted to life in captivity. They played hide and seek. They found spots across the barrack and allies in some of the inmates. Reshma, a burly prostitute not only gave good cover but she also lied well. “Nobody’s here,” she scowled and the boys would giggle standing back to back behind her.

Sometimes they would sneak in and out of the jailer’s room, shrieking past women having fights over water. That’s where they learnt some of the foulest language spoken and then they would copy it.

If someone grabbed a notebook it wasn’t uncommon to hear cuss words in class. The mothers for their part had gotten accustomed to it.

“How much can you shelter a child,” Rabia asked.

The world inside and the world outside were not so different. In the rainy season, the children had the chance to play pretend kitchen. Amir took mud from the ground and made it into small balls of ladoos and fed them to his mother. Though they had play-doh in the balwadi, a pre-school abutting the prison, they weren’t allowed to bring it inside. But the girls slept with their dolls and boys played with their cars. Other games took the shape of the world in which they found themselves. The most common game played was court-date where they re-enacted the scene they saw in the outside world. Many created magical worlds where dogs had powers and cars could fly. Most had never seen an airplane or a smartphone.

Rabia tried to give her children everything. As an undertrial with no option to work, the only job she could find was for a Bengali woman who got a regular income from outside. She washed her back and her clothes, readied her soap and bucket of water and stood in the food queue for her. For this she got kajal for her daughter, soap, face wash and 4,000 rupees for work done through the year. Rabia counted herself lucky.

In the mornings, mothers would dress their children in uniforms donated by schools, the girls in red and black pinafores, the boys in brown shorts and yellow shirts and a balwadi teacher and police constable accompanied them out of the prison and into the pre-school, in a building outside the prison premises. They learnt about cats and fish, how to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star but the education was basic at best. Most five-year olds struggle to hold a pen properly, few know how to write their names.

One day, a new mother who had come in for a case of cheating  dared to complain to the jailer. Learning fruit names and ABC was not an education, she said. The jailer told her to send the child outside. But for her, like many others, that was not an option. Another woman’s son began talking like a girl because segregation was so rigidly imposed.

TV serials taught them about a bigger world. Often, they learn more from Star World and National Geographic than they do from classes. By age five, they begin to question confinement.

“Why can’t we leave?” asked Lara. She had come in as a baby, said her first word in prison, learnt how to walk within these four walls and now she wanted to know where her home was. “They know this is not their house and soon as the child grows he begins asking about home, even if its something they just hear about,” Rabia said.

Sometimes they would sneak in and out of the jailer’s room, shrieking past women having fights over water. That’s where they learnt some of the foulest language spoken and then they would copy it.

India is among the few countries that allow children to reside with their mothers in prison until six. England and Wales have specialised mother and baby units separate from the general population within women’s prisons to allow babies to stay with their mothers until 18 months. Chinese law does not allow children to live in prison with their mothers while Brazil permits cohabitation until the child reaches 18 months. Mexico allows children to live with their mothers until the age of six.

There are strict laws and judgements governing the lives of children inside. In R D Upadhyaya vs State of Andhra Pradesh (2006), Supreme Court said, “the children living with their mother in a prison should not be treated as under-trial or convict. Children must be provided with adequate educational and recreational facilities.”

These laws exist on paper. In my visits over ten days in Kalyan Prison the balwadi did not open once though mothers said it does open frequently. The rules state that classes be taken outside but the one class I attended was inside barracks. Children are given a separate meal but subject to the same timetable as their parents. Though infections are kept in check, skin disease is rampant because of skin-to-skin contact in the overcrowded barracks.

Given the endemic issues and the abysmal conditions in sub-jails reform is a distant prospect. Even getting a chargesheet is problematic. One mother in for a cheating case because she was unable to repay a loan due to demonetisation has been in jail for eight months and is yet to receive the chargesheet. In these months, her daughter has transformed from being a shy girl to one who swears when she doesn’t get a chance on the swing.

“What do you expect?” she asked.

Across the country, children, are doing the time, unintended victims of their guardian’s crime.

The superintendent is one of the few men they see in their day to day lives. Jyoti, arrested for murder, was once visited by her husband. When she walked with her daughter, the child called him “mama”, as they call the boys who do deliveries in the canteen. “She didn’t know to call him papa,” Jyoti said.

Waiting for a visit is like standing over your own grave and reciting a prayer.

Rabia, Rabia, a man has come for you. Some of the women cheered as she walked behind the jailer to the visiting room. The children followed behind holding hands. They’d seen other children return with gifts after visitation and little Rahim was excited.

“Maybe Baba has gotten us something,” he said. Lara skipped ahead, excited more about her brothers’ enthusiasm than seeing a phantom father she had only heard in stories. Amir was optimistic. Something good awaited him, he was certain as they stood in the queue outside the visiting room for the first time in eighteen months. When her turn came, they saw a man across the glass barricade.

“This isn’t Baba,” said Rahim who remembered a lot of the past. Then the family’s fantasy came crashing down. There would no long-drawn confessions of love, no apologies and most of all no biscuits for the children. Rabia did her best to fight back the tears, she didn’t want her children to see her cry.

“Oh, it says Razia,” the jailer corrected himself.

“I am Rabia Sheikh,” she said and walked back, shoulders stooped. In the hierarchy of the jail, the prisoner who has a “mulaqat”, who is remembered by people outside, sits on top. For many inside, nobody waits outside. So aside from the two times her new-found father-in-law that the police found in West Bengal, came with biscuits, nobody came for a visit. 

“Waiting for a visit is like standing over your own grave and reciting a prayer,” said Rabia.

To fill the void, women turn to each other.  They forge relationships and fit into family-like structures, calling each other “my auntie or my sister” and live in communities. The prostitutes together, the thieves elsewhere and the murder convicts lord it over the others in Circle 1.

They are known as the “Big Bosses,” a gang led by Guddy, who came in when 22. They had become so powerful that they began demanding to have their letters and rations delivered to them, that they be allowed to sleep in barracks with fewer people.

An audacious woman, Guddy spit out expletives that empower the women. “He beats you, he beats your kids, he abuses the parents that gave birth to you and one day, you stab him,” she said. Another time, “nobody commits a murder, it just happens.” When she comes out to speak under the Ashoka tree, others show up to listen because a large percentage of the female prisoners identify with her message: they are in here because they are victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

“I complained to the police, to my parents and to my co-workers about the sexual abuse. Nobody did a thing, so I did,” says a woman who murdered her predatory boss.

“This murderers union,” the superintendent said. He didn’t complete the sentence. Power tussles are not uncommon. Prostitutes eye the “Big Bosses” with a mixture of jealousy and distrust but dare not touch them. But 15 months ago, two Nigerians were brought in for drug possession. Tall and tough, they failed to cower to the “Big Bosses” rules.

“You are just like me,” said Comfort.

“Go back to your corner,” yelled Patience.

One morning things escalated over a bucket of water and seven constables rushed to the site. Eventually the two groups were separated and the Nigerians got their own barrack and the title of “the VIPs”.

But this is all time-pass and if anything, prison makes you patient. The prisoners wait for the day they can go out and for many, a court date provides them with an opportunity to rebuild lives. “My old life ended when I was 22. My children have forgotten me, my family has moved on but I cannot and will not stop living,” says Guddy. In the course of her incarceration she has fallen in love with her co-accused in the trips to the session court. “No matter how rotten, a woman needs a man,” she says.

Like their mothers, the children began to look at the court date as the highlight of their month and waited in anticipation. It was the day they wore their finest and ran around telling the others, “My date has come; my date has come”.

“For me, the best part is the Cadbury chocolate,” said Lara, the youngest of Rabia’s three children. Together they walked out the gates and it felt as though they were going on a family trip. Even though a lot of it didn’t make sense, they remember the run-up to the date as their mother practised in Hindi, not once wavering from her denials.

Though their moments in front of the judge lasted a matter of minutes if they were lucky, they enjoyed the lock-up at the court.

The women and the men engaged in banter, exchanging barrack numbers and hearts. The children were witnesses to intimate conversations, some between father and child and others between siblings most often brought in on dowry crimes. But most of all, the boys were enamoured of the men, having almost no opportunity of seeing them in jail.

They enjoyed the sense of being in a new place, seeing new faces. The courtroom was often packed with relatives and Amir would scan the crowd just like the other children had told him to see if his father was around. He never was and so one day he asked his mother

“Where is Baba?” and she always responded honestly.

“I wish I knew where he was.”

As the children got older, their mother told them a story that their father had swallowed poison.

“He’s dead now,” Rahim said with certainty and his younger brother seconded this.

Amir and Rahim knew prison was not home. For months, their mother had been talking about the big world, telling them stories about trains, cars and bravery. When the children fell asleep she’d watch their small faces and weep, for nothing is worse, nothing more agonising than being separated from one’s children.

By law, children are sent to a shelter at six years. Mothers do not know where the child will sleep and despite attempts by social workers who describe the place, mothers are paralysed in fear. Who will take care of my child? Will he eat? These questions darken birthdays each year as they bring the mother and child a year closer to involuntary separation.

Mothers still celebrate birthdays with a heavy heart, mimicking the world outside as closely as possible. “We smash biscuits, add jam and Bournvita and call it a biscuit cake,” said Jyoti. If you give her a real cake, she won’t know what it is.”

Mothers who have no one outside are counselled by social welfare workers. “It’s hard to look at a woman in her face and tell her, we will bring her children back when there is no mechanism to ensure regular visits but this is the reality,” says a social worker.

When Rabia’s son’s sixth birthday was approaching a social worker took her to the activity room and they sat by a sewing machine.

“You’ll have to let go of your son soon,” she said.

At first Rabia refused. Days of counselling followed and when the day approached Rabia wailed. She couldn’t let them go. Rahim, mild-tempered and attentive, had grown to be the backbone of the family. Weeks of talking and assurances from the authorities that her son would be allowed fortnightly visits meant she slowly came around.

It was harder than anticipated to place Amir in a shelter. In the rush that had preceded Rabia’s incarceration, the police had given her about twenty minutes to pack her belongings. She had been unable to locate Amir’s birth certificate. With no proof of identity, the shelters were hesitant to take the little boy.

“First they called me an outsider and now they are questioning if my child is from this country,” she said.

“When you incarcerate a mother, you incarcerate her whole family,” she said. And with the loss of each child, the broken family fractured further. There are no statistics on the number of children that have a parent or both parents in the jails across India. There is little data on where the children end up. Very often they are displaced or end up in shelters, many of which are no different from the jails they are accustomed to. There exist no dedicated shelters for children of incarcerated parents, therefore they are often lodged in orphanages.

“The separation of mother and child is the real sentence,” said Rabia.

On a dreary day, they took both her boys away. She gave them two small bags with their clothes and cried to the door of the jail. When the boys left, they held each other’s hands. Hours later they would be separated until Amir turned six. This was the first time the boys were separated and if they were lucky, there was a chance they would be reunited. For days Rabia did not eat and when another mother shared her bhel, something she’d bought from the canteen, she ate a few bites miserably.

On days like these, the women discovered their sisterhood, where the Big Bosses and the VIPs all came together to support each other. “Inside, even in the darkest circles of hell, there is a special bond,” she said.

When Rahim reached the children’s home, he was met by an old man on a plastic chair and a dog that smelt awful. They manned the gates instead of jailers but this gate like the one at Adharwadi Jail was made of metal bars. When he was assigned a bed he went through his plastic bags like he had seen women do on their first days in jail. He took out a few of his belongings and folded them neatly. A couple of jeans donated by an NGO, a few t-shirts and a sweater his mother told him to wear if he got cold.

Six years old, he was alone in the world.

There were metal bars on each floor of the three-storey building. Aside from the court, he had never climbed stairs and he walked past the metal bars, going one floor up and then another. This place is not so different he thought until he was taken to the roof. Rahim looked over the city and began to cry. He’d never seen the world like this, like the guards did from the watchtower, like birds did from the sky.

A few months later, his little brother Amir joined him. He waited for days for his arrival and when he finally came they slept in the same bed and he held him close, like his sister would hold a doll. Even on nights when he wet the bed, something he does even today, he wouldn’t throw his brother out. He would clean him and they’d squeeze on the edge together.

“If not for anything else,” the sister (social worker) of the orphanage would say, “thank your mother for giving you each other.”

On the first day at a school not far from the shelter, another boy asked where he was from. It was usual first day of school banter and Rahim thought long.

“Nobody likes to hear about the jail,” he concluded and lied. From Manpada he said with a calculated certainty; he lied with the ease with which the women in jail had been coached to lie in front of the judges.

“We’ve just moved here,” he said and later that night he would tell his brother this story and together they rehearsed their lines for the world.

When I met the boys in the shelter, they remembered the jail vividly. They remembered the fight between their mother and Jyoti after Amir had pushed Jyoti’s daughter. Her mother had kicked their mother who was in pain for days.

“I felt like stabbing her,” the six-year-old said flatly. The kids grew up learning things their minds couldn’t comprehend. “Like an animal in a cage,” said a three-year-old, “felt like committing suicide,” said a five year.

There is a group of children being forced to grow up faster than the children on the outside because they are silent witnesses to the tensions and apprehensions of the hundreds of women inside.

Finally, Rabia had visitors. Three months had passed and like all the promises in the jail, the promise her children would visit each fortnight was broken. They came three months later and Rabia took a packet of biscuits for her boys. Lara couldn’t control her excitement and jumped on the boys as they walked in. They met next to the jailer’s office and Rabia tried to learn as much as possible from the boys. She tried to create a picture of the world outside, of their small bed.

“My heart broke when I learnt that they still slept behind bars,” she said. Thirty minutes went by in a matter of seconds and her children had to leave.

“Don’t forget us,” Amir said and she fought back tears. The hardest part was saying good bye so she never did as they were escorted out of the jail and she and Lara walked back to the barracks.


(*Names of prisoners and children have been changed.)