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Rape defendant's death casts shadow on model jail

Wednesday - 3/13/2013, 9:23pm  ET

FILE- In this March 11, 2013 file photo, an Indian policeman rides a bicycle inside Tihar Jail, the largest complex of prisons in South Asia, in New Delhi, India. India’s Tihar Jail is a land of bakeries and carpentry shops, where inmates compete in music contests, take classes and perform intensive Buddhist meditation as part of their rehabilitation. Tihar Jail is also a vast, overcrowded facility, crammed with people awaiting trial who sleep on concrete floors, face daily threats from other prisoners and are shaken down for bribes from their poorly paid jailers, according to human rights lawyers and former inmates there. The two sides of India’s most famous jail emerged this week when a man accused in the notorious rape of a woman aboard a New Delhi bus was found dead in his cell, either a suicide, according to jail officials, or a victim of foul play, according to his family. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

RAVI NESSMAN
Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) -- India's Tihar Jail is a land of bakeries and carpentry shops, where inmates compete in music contests, take classes and perform intensive Buddhist meditation as part of their rehabilitation.

Tihar Jail is crammed with people awaiting trial who sleep on concrete floors, face daily threats from other prisoners and are shaken down for bribes from their poorly paid jailers, according to human rights lawyers and former inmates.

The two sides of India's most famous jail emerged this week when a man accused in the notorious rape of a woman aboard a New Delhi bus was found dead in his cell. Jail authorities said Ram Singh, 33, hanged himself, but his family questioned how he could have done that with three cellmates sleeping beside him. A magistrate is investigating.

Just two days earlier, the jail's director-general strutted the catwalk at a fashion show premiering the design creations of Tihar's female inmates.

The genius of Tihar officials is that they are able "to violate human rights, and have a brilliant camouflage," said Colin Gonsalves, a Supreme Court lawyer and the director of the Human Rights Law Network.

Tihar is a massive complex of nine separate jails in New Delhi that is one of the largest incarceration facilities in South Asia. Like many of India's prisons, it long suffered from a reputation for badly mistreating prisoners.

In the 1990s, Kiran Bedi, a reformist police official, took charge and tried to turn it around. She introduced yoga, brought in literacy and vocational classes and reined in some of the jail's worst excesses, a process she documented in her book, "It's Always Possible." A movie, "Doing Time, Doing Vipassana," praised the jail's intensive 10-day silent meditation program.

The jail also became a business, making about 300 million rupees ($5.5 million) in revenue this fiscal year, according to jail officials. Its bakery sells TJ's cookies at a network of TJ shops and upscale malls around the capital. Its woodworking factory sells a large computer table for 5,251.50 rupees (about $100). A small shop just outside Tihar's walls sells sweets, white dress shirts, candles and cleaning products made by the inmates, as well as their paintings, mainly of women, staring off into the distance.

It held a Tihar Idols music competition last year and is selling a CD of songs from the winners.

In recent years, Tihar has become renowned for its gentle treatment of lawmakers and former Cabinet ministers charged with corruption. In 2011, a judge found a jail superintendent having tea and biscuits in his office with an incarcerated parliamentarian.

But most prisoners don't fare that well, according to lawyers and former inmates.

"The myth is that it's one of the model prisons ... but as far as we can make out, there has been a downslide to the same old rotten practices that we heard of earlier," Gonsalves said, citing reports of drugs, extortion and torture.

According to the jail's own statistics from January, it is filled to nearly twice its capacity, with 12,199 inmates in a facility built for 6,250. Just over a quarter of the inmates have been convicted of crimes, while the rest are awaiting trial -- some for years. A study published last year in the Delhi Psychiatry Journal reported 18 suicides in the jail in just over 10 years. The authors, who worked in Tihar's psychiatry department, said those numbers might be even higher, because the deaths of other suicide victims might be recorded in the hospitals where they were rushed.

Last year, an inmate who required a feeding tube because of a prior injury lost 28 kilograms (61 pounds) in jail, bringing his weight to 30 kilograms (66 pounds), according to a judicial investigation. He died, emaciated and riddled with tuberculosis, of an infection around his feeding tube.

One visiting prison lawyer told of watching guards hit inmates with iron bars and seeing an inmate hung upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being barred from the jail.

"Living conditions are not proper for a human being," said N.D. Pancholi, another lawyer with clients at the jail.

Mohammad Ahmad Kazmi, who spent seven months in the prison last year on charges that he was involved in the bombing of an Israeli diplomat's car, said he was in a high-security ward where one inmate was beaten and attacked with scalpels that were routinely smuggled inside the prison.

Despite constant security checks, many inmates had cellphones, which are banned but tolerated by poorly paid guards who have been bribed, Kazmi said. The jail's cellphone jammers rarely worked, he said.

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