Two weeks back on a Friday afternoon when I visited Karachi Women’s Prison, it seemed little had changed in the wards where members of the public are allowed entry since my last visit a couple of years ago: the courtyard separating the two barracks is still spick and span; the cheap yet practical grey ceramic tiled floor is scrubbed and shiny though with signs of wear; the expansive barracks have beds in order with discarded dupattas — each a different colour — tautly covering the iron-grilled windows.
The primness of the women’s prison still strongly contrasts with the squalid residential quarters of the prison staff: low-rise buildings with corrugated iron sheets for roofing, missing doors and canopies in their yards; overflowing sewage lines; dumps of burning garbage; and children with dirty feet running around. For most of the inmates too, the orderliness of their barracks is a departure from the spaces they occupied and the places they hailed from prior to their current stint behind bars.
“We’ve had women come back and tell us that it was so much better to be behind bars, at least they had shelter and their children received education and three meals a day,” says the hawkish female warden, in service with the prison department for over two decades and deputed to show me and the accompanying photographer around. “You know our society is discriminatory towards women; they’ll disown them even if they are released without being convicted. Now imagine if you have to live on your own in this day and age with three or four children and no one to support you,” she explains when we come out of the well-equipped and colourfully decorated children’s nursery school room.
As a moazzan’s voice filters in through the behemoth colonial sand-stone boundary wall, one takes in the Dars-i-Quran room, the school nursery, and the arts and craft room sitting next to each other. Religious education, contemporary education and then recreation, right there — for a minute, incarceration seems a blessing in disguise.
The three children, all under five years of age, who have been tagging us and vying for our attention since we entered the women’s prison, are willingly posing for pictures — none are fazed by the authoritative warden or intimidated by the presence of two strangers among them. I point towards them and am compelled to ask her: “What about these children who are here for no fault of theirs, do they remain unaffected psychologically?” She hesitates but then says: “Yes, the children here are much older than their age. They grow faster inside. But see, even if they leave now and the relatives outside do not take care of them, then they are definitely worse-off.”
Later, she guides me around the barracks and closer to the entrance, where a basic kitchen, a room with tailoring machines, and a computer lab are situated. In front of the computer lab, a four-year-old from the trio, clad in blue denim shirt and knickers, comes up, shakes my hand and starts a conversation himself. Its past mid-day and the morning classes have been wrapped up, so I ask him how his day went. ‘MH’ replies matter of fact: “Today we went to the court in the police van.” I switch the topic to be not insensitive, but not before he rattles his name, his siblings and their whereabouts and that he has been here with his mother for six months. Like the other children who are old enough to walk around and speak, he doesn’t protest much about where he is.
Earlier, Nusrat Mangan, DIG Prisons, had informed me that there are 16 children — infants to five year olds — who are living with their mothers at the Karachi Women’s prison, three of whom are now at the SOS Village at Malir Halt. Till mid-2000s, under Rule 236 of the Prisons Act, women were allowed to keep children till the age of three years but post an amendment the upper limit was revised to six years. For Mangan separating a mother and child during his formative years is inhuman. “We cannot separate a mother from her children. That’s a crime in itself,” he says. “So we let them be till they are a little older and can take care of themselves. We try to give them proper schooling, nursery and sports activities. NGOs also play an important role, and provide them with clothes and medicine.”
Of all the mothers, Mangan says that nobody brings their child willingly: “Only those women bring their children in who have no family support, are scared their children will be abused at their relatives’ place or fear a reprisal from those who implicated her in the case, personal feuds or enmities.”
Later, as I had interviewed a string of women under the watchful eye of a deputy superintendent in her office, most women and the anecdotes they provided corroborated this. The deputy superintendent had herself singled out one inmate, ‘Y’, whose three-year-old girl, ‘M’ had joined her a couple of months back as her in-laws could not take care of her. “Unlike other mothers who let their children scamper freely, ‘Y’ does not let her daughter go out of sight or mingle with other children,” the deputy superintendent informed us.
When ‘Y’ came in, I asked her if — given that her child is already living in restrictive conditions — she had ever considered the implications of enforcing further restrictions and keeping her from socialising with other children. “Yes, my daughter rarely leaves my side. Most women let their children roam around and play freely but they don’t keep a sharp eye. The children get into brawls and they are aggressive, and I don’t want my daughter hurt,” ‘Y’ explains. “So I don’t like her playing with other kids. I want her to be mature and open enough with me to share whatever goes on in her life.”