Toiling for freedom: How women-convicts struggle to rebuild their lives after incarceration

Social workers say many women offenders are actually victims all along, before the crime is committed, during the period of imprisonment, and even after release.
Toiling for freedom: How women-convicts struggle to rebuild their lives after incarceration
Toiling for freedom: How women-convicts struggle to rebuild their lives after incarceration
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On the outskirts of Bengaluru, in Doddakannalli, an ashram embodies the root meaning of the word in a very special way. The word ‘ashram’ comes from the Sanskrit root ‘sram’, which means ‘to toil’. At Jeevodaya Ashram, the women who stay there are shedding new light on that term. Recently released from jail, they are toiling to rebuild their entire lives.

Jeevodaya was started in 1995 by Sister Clara Alapaat and Sister Fidelis Thomas, with the intention of giving women an opportunity to start their lives over. “Many times, the women don’t even know why they are in jail,” Sister Clara says, adding, “Many of them claim to be innocent, but that does not matter either way. We do not judge them. We are here to support them, and to help them find their way back into society.”

The 2016 National Crime Records Bureau (Ministry of Home Affairs) Crime Statistics report states that almost 2 lakh women were arrested in India and over 10,000 women were arrested in the state of Karnataka. While the number isn’t small, a woman committing a crime and being in jail is still cause for disbelief. Bindu Doddahatti, a lawyer with the Alternative Law Forum in Bengaluru states, “Women tend to be more demonised than men in society and in the media for committing crimes. They are later ostracised by their families and communities where many times men are welcomed back. Men do not face the same level of isolation.”

According to Sister Fidelis, many times when a woman is released from jail, no one is there to meet them because the families don’t want to claim her. “Because we work in the prison and meet these women regularly, we know when they don’t have anyone coming for them. That is when we step in and offer them a place to stay.”

Day-to-day life at the ashram focuses on giving the women an opportunity to rest and re-adjust to life. “We like to give the women a routine, but make sure that things are optional,” says Sister Clara. “Usually we start with yoga in the morning, then breakfast, then some household chores, lunch, followed by prayer and rest time. We engage them in making handicrafts like greeting cards, gift bags, or incense sticks that we can later market. It is good to give them a skill.”

The materials, women at the ashram use, to make greeting cards and bags.

Domestic violence and crime

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, three women out of the thousands shared their stories. These women had found their way to the ashram because they met Sister Fidelis and Sister Clara in jail.

A, aged 45, was accused of murdering her husband of fifteen years. “He used to drink to excess,” she says. “It was regular occurrence. Sometimes he would get angry, and he would hurt me. He had lost his job. I used to work at the local anganwadi as a helper and take care of our home. One evening, he fell and hit his head. We took him into the house but he died. We went to the police station but they did not listen to us. His family accused me of killing him because they said I wanted property. They needed someone to blame.”

As she describes what happened to her, her eyes fill with tears of frustration. She spent 10 years at Bangalore Central Jail along with her sister and mother. “We didn’t get any visitors and the other women would use that against us as a way of making us feel small. I was separated from my children. No mother should ever be separated from her children. I went into a serious depression and had to be treated at NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences).”

After she got out, she went to the ashram to rebuild her life. Her family did not want her back in their village because it would cause a scandal. She has since reunited with her children and is now doing small odd jobs to support herself. “My sons fully support me,” she says with her first smile. “Without them, I would not be able to carry on.”

E.R, age 42, surrendered herself to the police after her husband committed theft. “I did not know he did it until he came home with the money. Even after I surrendered, the police brutally beat me. They would beat the bottom of our feet, or tie our hands above our heads and beat us.” When asked why she surrendered herself when she did not commit the crime, she says, “I knew what he had was wrong and we would not have been able to live peacefully. I don’t know why he did it but I had to go along with it. I knew if I went to the police that he would also come.”

M, aged 33, went to jail for eight years without knowing why. She trembled when she began recounting her story, claiming that she had no idea what she had got herself involved in. “My husband disappeared one day. He did not tell me most times where he was going or what he was doing. When I called his mobile, the police answered and told me to come to the station. My husband had committed theft but I did not know. I was beaten at the station and all my jewellery was taken from me. Then they put me in jail as well. I didn’t know what to do, or who to call. I was so afraid. I used to work at a garment factory and the police went to check my attendance and even though they saw I was working that day, they said I had helped my husband.” She looks down as she says, “No one came to see me in the eight years I was in jail. Even my own mother blamed me. I was so ashamed.”

Victims forever

In June 2018, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) published a report proposing 134 recommendations to improve the lives of women who are in jail. In the study conducted by WCD Ministry, it was found that in many cases, women were abandoned by their families and were left to fend for themselves after their release. The report proposes a comprehensive after-care programme to be put in place, covering employment, financial support, regaining of child custody, shelter, counselling and continuity of healthcare services.

However, many states lack the basics in care. According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an independent, international non-governmental organisation, the prison visiting system in India is "dismal." Their 2016 report 'Looking into the Haze, a Study on Prison Monitoring in India', showed that only one state, Meghalaya, was complying with the laws that dictate how and when prisons should be visited. The study explains that an official Board of Visitors (BOV) needs to be in place to ensure basic health and safety of the women, but very few states are implementing this.

M says, “I will struggle for some time. I have lost everything. I have no husband, no other family. Now I just have my life. I want to earn, I want to get better, and get back my children.”

Sister Fidelis explains, “So many women don’t understand the law and are so scared of being beaten that they don’t ask any questions. We meet women in prison and they tell us that that they have nobody. Many a time, these are also women who don’t have financial support. So without a family, there is no one to pay for bail or help with lawyers. When women finally are released from prison, and don’t have anyone to help them, they are so frightened. They don’t know where to go or what to do. There is no structure to counsel them.”

Cecilia Davies, an independent consultant who has worked on criminal justice issues for years, says, "A glimpse into the lives of women who are incarcerated will more often than not reveal a history of neglect, discrimination, abuse and subjection to violence in its various forms and at its worst. However, what is saddening is that once they are convicted of a crime, they are considered better off forgotten and erased from the memory of their families. Their ordeal worsens post their release with no one to reach out to and nowhere to go. The irony with women offenders is that despite being convicted, they are actually victims all along, before the crime is committed, during the period of their imprisonment and even after they are released. Respite is simply elusive as far as many of them are concerned."

"In all her simplicity, a woman-convict once told me – ‘Madam, I used to be beaten and spat upon every day. I cannot even dare recall what I went through behind the four walls of my house. One fine day, I defended myself and my husband died. I never intended it, but that day I could not take it anymore. I fought back. I thought the judge will understand what happened with me. Where is the justice, for all that I faced through all the years with my husband? Who is to be punished for that? It feels like I was punished for fighting back’."

This article was done as part of the National Foundation of India Media Awards Programme; the author was a recipient of the fellowship in 2017.

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