By Dr Jeanette Pinto
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Children of a Lesser God: Babies Behind Prison Bars
14th Nov, 2018
By Dr Jeanette Pinto

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By Dr Jeanette Pinto –

We live in a world which is so full of ‘I, Me, Mine’, that we are oblivious of the plight of many other people in society. Have you heard of babies and toddlers who are losing their childhood languishing behind prison bars? Are you squirming or shocked reading this? What crimes have those little ones committed? What chance do they have of celebrating Children’s Day?

Article 21 of the Constitution of India on the protection of life and personal liberty clearly states that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” Article 45 mentions free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14 years. But there is no clear instruction on how children behind prison bars can retain such very basic human rights.

Babes and children are put behind bars because their mothers primary caregivers and in some cases their fathers are either, a convict, or waiting for their trial. They are forced to take their children inside with them. The poor innocent, defenceless children are thus condemned to a pitiful life. Some suffer ill health and they grow up in claustrophobic surroundings. Worse is they are isolated from the outside world, and exposed to the jaded world of the adult inmates. They are deprived of social and emotional security due to no fault of their own.

One research report revealed that when asked to draw any animal, every single child drew a cat because that was all they had ever seen, perhaps hovering over their meals. Also, when asked where they live, all the children shouted out, “Jail!” as if it was the Garden of Eden.
What can life be for these babes behind prison bars? We read varying horrific accounts of the conditions in jails? What is the effect of confinement on the human psyche, away from friends and relatives, persistently nagged by fears? Caught in his own complexes, with no one to console him, how does a baby prisoner live through his formative years in jail? Are children dangerous criminals? Are they a threat to society? Does the State find no way to alleviate their unseen pain? Cannot the government find a solution to restore respect for these defenceless little human beings?

Most prisons don’t have crèches, medical care or recreational and education facilities. Some don’t even have segregated barracks for the women and their children. One study revealed: ‘The women’s wing has room for 23, but at any given time it is packed with 150-200 women and 30 children.’

Here’s one case study I read about a couple of years ago: “Irfan was born in jail, but I am grateful his birth registration doesn’t mention it. Our lives are cursed anyway. What future does a jail baby have?” said his mother Zahira, serving a seven-year-term for murdering her brother. She was 25 and more than six months pregnant when she came to jail with her daughter Noor, a two-year-old. For the first month they were forced to sleep in the toilet because the older inmates said she had to earn her place in the overcrowded cells.

After what seemed an age, here’s another description of two-year-old Irfan. ‘He crawls along the dirty cement floor of a jail in India’s financial capital Bombay, wearing only a soiled and torn vest, covered with flies, his tiny arms and legs erupting with vicious red boils. He defecates near a stinking open sewage drain and begins to wail – maybe to be cleaned, possibly for food or just the warmth of an arm around him – but there is no one willing to listen’. Aren’t we horrified and deeply pained to learn of Irfan or any baby’s fate such as this? Is this being Pro-life? Where is the dignity for that little human person?

The Bombay jail has unmistakable signs of a horrible childhood – dusty teddy bears with gouged-out eyes, broken red toy trucks and decapitated dolls. The only laughter comes from a loud television set. The main distraction is the monotonous whirring of sewing machines in a nearby tailoring unit. Otherwise it is a continuous stream of babies bawling, women abusing and wardens’ shouting. The rules are the same for baby Irfan, toddler Noor and their mother.

They wake up at 5.30am to roll call and daily fights outside the toilet. Prayers and a hurried bath, later the children are sent to a crèche run by a NGO where they remain until 12.30pm with a break for brunch. Locked up till 3pm, they are let out to play or meet the rare visitor. Dinner is at 7pm and they are locked up again for the night. The food is inedible, but there’s plenty – mounds of coarse rice, stacks of leathery unleavened bread and a watery vegetable preparation. On good days the children may get milk, eggs or fruit. Lack of refrigeration facility, spoils the milk easily.

The children’s clothes and toys are donated by voluntary organizations. Officials admit in private that the children are viewed as a liability and a drain on their already meagre jail.

So what does ‘Children’s Day’ mean to these babes and children who live behind prison bars? Does anyone have an answer? How can we be life-giving to these children? Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru whose birthday (November14) we celebrate all over India, fondly referred to children saying that they were like flower buds in a garden. They should be carefully and lovingly nurtured, as they are the future of the nation, the citizens of tomorrow, and the very foundation of society.

Children are God’s gift to our nation and Children’s Day is a special day for all our children to engage in joyful, social and cultural fun filled activities. Hopefully pro-life groups and Christian organisations, the prison ministry, NGO’s and others will celebrate this day by making it special and meaningful for the babies and children who are behind prison bars. That surely would truly be a fitting tribute to Chacha Nehru.

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