Jailonomics: How to Survive Inside an Indian Prison


In jail, all work is done by the prisoners themselves. They cook for themselves, clean the jail themselves. The librarian is a prisoner, as is the support staff in the office. All the farming inside the jail is also done by the prisoners, and one can see brinjals, cabbages, cauliflowers and tomatoes growing in the vegetable patch.

I am sure that, to important visitors and in all their public relations, the authorities paint a pretty picture of the jail – reminiscent of some kind of commune I would imagine in places like Auroville, or like a kibbutz in one of Leon Uris’s novels. You would think the jail is one big happy family, living in brotherhood and harmony.

That’s bullshit.

The fact is that there are two sets of people in a closed community, and only one set of people get to carry the dandas. All power and authority emanates from the stick, and the economy is automatically shaped and driven by this power and its complete misuse.

Theoretically, the jail is not supposed to have an economy at all. No cash is supposed to be allowed inside. Shelter, food and very basic medical care is supposedly free for all prisoners.

Prisoners are allowed to do some work, for which they are paid a tiny daily amount (Rs 22, 32 or 46 per day: the amount depends upon the nature of work) of which, I am told, a third is deducted automatically by the jail administration. The balance is deposited into a post office account that the prisoner registers after entering the jail, and can be  accessed as required by him as long as he does not bring cash into the prison. But these amounts are a joke today, and well below what the government itself pays in schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

The best way to understand the jail’s economy is by looking at two examples.

First, let us take the example of an imaginary Rajesh. Let’s assume that Rajesh is from a middle-class family, and has been arrested because he is accused of some crime. I am making no assumptions about the nature of the crime or his guilt since, like everyone in Bokaro jail, he is an undertrial and so innocent until proven guilty (convicts are sent to Hazaribagh Central Jail).

This is Rajesh’s first time in jail and he has had no advice on what to bring, what to pack, etc. The district police bring him into the prison and hand him over to the jail police (a different police force). Rajesh is scared and confused. Fish-face or some other on-duty cop is there to receive him. However, the police do not explain anything to him about things such as money not being allowed inside. There is a yellow flex poster on the wall in the entrance corridor which spells out everything that is not allowed, but it is a long list, and reading it is not really something a freshly arrested man is likely to do. If Rajesh has any cash, what is to be done with it is his own decision. Even if he is informed about the option to deposit cash and other posessions at the entrance, many questions will arise in his mind: “Should I deposit it? Will I ever get the deposited money/items back? Should I give some of it to the cops to have an easier time inside? Can they help me with anything inside? Will I need cash inside? Will I be allowed to keep it? Should I try and hide it? If I try and hide it and they find it on me, will I be beaten?”

No answers. But unless he deposits the money at the gate, the fact is that any money he carries inside will be taken from him. Illegally.

Next, Rajesh is taken to a residential ward: in Bokaro jail, where I was incarcerated, it will most likely be Ward 2. From that instant on, various inmates try to put a value on Rajesh.

Every new inmate in a ward is a potential source of income for the ward-in-charge. It is in the ward-in-charge’s interest to keep Rajesh as scared and intimidated as possible. The fear of violence, mistreatment, torture and various other abuses is put into Rajesh – not just by the ward-in-charge but also by his various assistants and other ward residents. After Rajesh is reasonably convinced about the assistance he will need, he is offered a safe haven in Ward 2 itself – for a one-time fee. The amount I was told, and which I had agreed upon with the Ward 2 in-charge Ghani, was Rs 10,000. Two prisoners from that ward, Shant and Vinod, later told me (once I was shifted from Ward 2 to the hospital ward) that they had paid only Rs 5,000 apiece. If Rajesh finds Ward 2 too expensive or chooses not to commit, Ghani will ensure that the next day the cops will likely move him to another ward. The next morning, on the basis of the newspaper and conversations he has with various people, other ward-in-charges will make him offers. Simultaneously, the jail cops will make him do manual labor and generally ensure he has a bad time to force a decision. Because Ghani will be upset with him for not agreeing to the deal offered in Ward 2, Ghani will probably ensure he has a terrible first day – he might be threatened by various people. Some minor thrashing – without any visible marks – behind closed doors is also very possible. In a sense, it is like a very twisted auction system for a hotel website – but happening inside a prison.

Let us say Rajesh finally settles on Ward 2 on day one itself – he agrees upon the one-time fee of Rs 5,000 with Ghani. However, this is just an entrance fee. There are then ongoing costs of just staying in prison – for example, to pay Ghani, Rajesh needs cash. Whatever cash Rajesh had is either deposited at the gate (if he is lucky) or already taken by the cops. Currently he has no cash.

Over the next day or two Rajesh has some visitors. He asks them to bring him, say, Rs 10,000 on the next visit. In the visiting area the visitors and the prisoners are separated by two layers of wire mesh with a 3ft space between the two meshes. Plus there is often a cop hanging around – there is no way anyone can hand anything over, and anyway the visitors have to leave any items brought for a prisoner with the cops before they can meet the person. So the materials (clothes, food, etc.) for Rajesh in which the money is hidden is handed over to the police. The police search it thoroughly. They find the Rs 10,000, of which they keep Rs 2,000 and the balance, Rs 8,000, is handed over to Rajesh.

Now, Rajesh starts to settle in but finds the food terrible. In a place where the definition of tasty food is spicy and oily, the bland, boiled jail food is the farthest you can get from it. This is intentional. Only if the regular food is bad can Ghani (or any other kitchen-in-charge) demand a decent price for the ‘premium’ food he sells to the better-off prisoners.

Consequently, the regular food of the jail, for those who cannot afford the premium, is the worst possible in terms of taste or nutrition. Rajesh is offered a price of Rs 1,000 per month for the premium food (which is better, but only marginally in my book). After two or three days of regular jail food Rajesh now finds the ‘premium’ food fantastic. Rajesh is also a smoker (true for a majority of the inmates), although not a heavy smoker, and now wants cigarettes as well. He understands that cigarettes are available, but at double the market price. Cigarettes are on the ‘not okay’ list, so the cops allow them in through visitors or fixers but charge a 100 percent margin on them. Similar margins apply on ganja, alcohol, and even cell phones; the more prohibited the item, the bigger the premium.

Rajesh is happy that cigarettes are at least available, and arranges for some. He also notices that he smokes a lot more in here than he did outside – partly because he is tense about his case and partly because he has nothing else to do.

His family comes to visit him three times that first week. On the third visit his family tells him that the cops charged Rs 120 for each visit after the first one. Rajesh is unhappy and tells them not to pay. He says he will take it up, but is not sure who to talk to. Outside each ward are tacked two bright yellow pieces of flex. One has the list of prohibited items: the expected stuff like alcohol, drugs, etc. Plus, inexplicably, books (although nobody seems to stop them). The other flex poster is the daily and weekly dietary entitlement of each prisoner. Rajesh wonders about his rights as a prisoner but these are not clearly spelled out anywhere.

In week two his family doesn’t visit him. When they finally meet and he asks about the delay, they say they came multiple times and waited to meet him while refusing to pay. The cops told them to go away after a while. The cops told his family that Rajesh’s name had been called but he had not responded and was probably asleep. The fact is that his name had not been announced. The inconvenience and wasted time finally teaches the family that to meet their beloved Rajesh more than once a week, a price needs to be paid. Not to the government, but to corrupt policemen.

After a while, Rajesh is looking for a break from the monotony of jail food and wants to eat something from outside. Once or twice a week his family gets him home food, but obviously not what he wants when he wants it. In jail, everything has a minimum wait cycle of three to four days. Since Rajesh has no way to communicate, he can only tell his visitors in one visit what he wants in the next one. He learns that he can order food from outside through visitors or fixers, but again at twice the market price. Every once in a while the police conducts a talaashi (search) in his ward – and, if anything prohibited is found, he lands up having to pay again to keep it.

All this would be different, of course, if Rajesh was rich enough to afford Ward 9, which is the most luxurious ward in the jail. Everything is available there – cell phone, iPod, color TV, inverter connection, heater, hot tea on demand, etc. – but the entry price is Rs 50,000 per month. ‘Living’ expenses are charged over and above that.

Inside jail, Rajesh is not generating any income or producing anything. He has gone from being a source of income to an expense for his family. Depending upon his habits and interests, his monthly budget in Ward 2 (after paying the one-time entrance fee) can range anywhere from Rs 3,000 to Rs 30,000.

Let’s take another example of Raju – again a fictitious character – a boy from a local village. He is from a poor family and has only studied till class 8. Again, I make no assumptions about the nature of his crime or his guilt. The only thing to remember is that he is also an undertrial.

Raju comes into the jail with few possessions. He had been advised not to carry cash. On his entry into Ward 2 he is carefully evaluated. The next day’s paper would be important to these evaluators only if Raju’s crime is serious – otherwise petty crimes by poor people are often not considered newsworthy. The ward bosses try and assess him quickly: is he a potential source of income? Is there potential profit in coercing/protecting/harassing Raju? If that does not seem the case then is Raju good as a worker to perform a variety of menial tasks? One of the ward bosses thinks Raju is a candidate for the ‘worker’ class. He can wash dishes and clothes, sweep and mop the floors, clean loos, etc. They also try to assess whether Raju will do these things quietly and for practically little or no money – or will he make trouble?

In Raju’s case, let us assume that there is no money that can be made off the boy. And Ward 2 has a good supply of workers so Raju is shunted off to another ward. His name is called for labor every day, and in his new ward they make him perform a variety of menial tasks. Raju believes he has no control over which ward he can be in and also believes that the ward boss has the authority and power not just to keep him but also physically beat him – so he submits and falls into the role of the worker. Raju not only does not know his rights, he does not even know that he has rights! He is paid a pittance, if at all, eats standard jail food, and believes he has no rights or choices. His only hope is a quick implementation of justice for which he looks to his family (who are all illiterate) and his lawyer to get him out quickly.

When his family comes to visit, the routine is similar to Rajesh’s except that since his family is visibly less affluent, the cops are willing to let a visit happen for Rs 50 instead of Rs 120.
So there are two categories of people who take money from prisoners: the police and a set of better connected and more powerful prisoners. I am calling them the ‘uber-prisoners’.

Even uber-prisoners derive their power from the police. For example, the police get to decide who will be the kitchen-in-charge, and so they take a cut in all the profits from the kitchen. Similarly, the cops have the authority to decide who will be called for labor and who will not, and what the consequences will be when someone whose name is called does not turn up. The cops get to assign prisoners to wards and also move prisoners around. (My being assigned to the hospital ward was an exception because the jailer/ superintendent had taken the decision).

The power is with the cops, as is the greed. The cops pass their power along to ward-in-charges or other key players like Ghani, who use their power to squeeze profits out of other prisoners. Because their power is only ‘loaned’ to them, they are always effectively under the control of the cops. The cops always want to take a major proportion of the profits away while their ‘appointees’ always try and save some extra profits for themselves. The reason why Ghani tells me not to tell anyone that the amount we have agreed upon is Rs 10,000 is that he does not want the cops to find out. He will probably tell the cops Rs 5,000 and pay them accordingly. Interestingly, Rs 5,000 is what he charged Vinod and Shant, but had me priced at Rs 10,000 because he thought he could. In a sense I was being cheated and would probably have felt wronged and angry if I did not have my analytical hat on, or maybe if the amount involved had been more substantial.

Every single one of these powers is used to make money. For example, a few days after I had moved to the hospital ward, Ghani met me. He said that to get me off the labor list he had paid some cops some money. (My name had indeed been called in the labor announcement but I was told by Ghani and his crew not to go, and nobody had come looking for me.) So I paid him the amount he asked me for – Rs 350. The point is that while the uber-prisoner (in this case, Ghani) collects the money, the power still flows from the cops and so a significant portion of the money also flows back to the cops.

Separate from the police superintendent and the jailer, the top cop inside the jail, and one of the most imposing characters there, is the ‘Zamindar’ (landowner). I don’t know why he is given that title, but that is how he is referred to even in announcements on the PA system, so I guess that is his formal or semi-formal designation.

One look at the Zamindar tells you that he is the Zamindar. A tall, bulky man with a big stick and a bigger swagger, he wears two stripes on his sleeve and a suspiciously jet-black moustache on his face.

Every morning he lines up all the new male prisoners brought in the previous day and asks them who they are and what their profession is and what they are accused of. It isn’t particularly pleasant, and many of the questions are meant to put the prisoners down. It is Know Your Customer, Zamindar-style.

While I assume there is a legal reason to conduct this exercise, it certainly has other goals as far as the Zamindar is concerned. Firstly, it establishes very clearly in every prisoner’s mind who the top boss is. Secondly, it helps the Zamindar assess the potential worth of each prisoner, and therefore his ability to profit from him. The jail’s entire economy is shaped by the power that flows from him.

Another thing that the cops lavishly dig into are the supplies provided by the government for the prisoners. All the best food is appropriated and consumed by the cops. Whether it is namkeen, chiwda, chicken, or eggs, all are prepared and offered first to the cops, and next to the paying prisoners. Tea for the cops is made multiple times a day with lots of milk and sugar. What the ordinary prisoners get is more like goat piss.

The Zamindar sits comfortably in the sun every morning and gets himself a shave from the prison barber. The prisoners – especially those who do not tip the barber – land up getting shaved with a used blade. In one case a poor prisoner who prized his long hair asked the barber to give him a slight trim – and got a crew-cut instead. A few of the real mafia types are the only other prisoners treated with deference in the prison. The serious mafia inspire fear – not just amongst the prisoners but also the cops. The police feel that if they take too firm a line with that crowd, there could be repercussions. And people like me are treated with a little deference because we have the ability to reveal the entire system in great detail to the jailer and superintendent. Rumor has it that they are also in the know and get a cut on everything. I have no way of knowing.

This is an edited excerpt from the book The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail, by Chetan Mahajan, published by Penguin Books India.

Chetan Mahajan is the CEO of HCL Learning Ltd. He has lived for many years in the US, where he earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. He now lives with his family in Delhi NCR.

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