Motherhood is a universally difficult phenomenon, irrespective of context. It is a primal task to conceive, bear and give birth to a new life form, and I believe we, as a society, do not take enough cognizance of the enormous biological and emotional weight of this phenomenon — which is indicative of the general attitude towards women in society, even in our supposedly progressive modern era. This is why the issue of maternity for female incarcerated prisoners seems to be on the fringes of society, such that it hardly seems real, or worthy of attention.
According to data published by NCRB data, by the end of 2015, Indian prisons had witnessed an intake of close to 17,834 women prisoners, and close to 1,817 children live with incarcerated mothers within these prisons. Furthermore, according to the same data, Indian jails were 38% short of medical staff, and a mere 1,866 number of medical staff (men and women) were employed against the sanctioned number of 2,993. Even more damning: the report revealed that 51 women prisoners died behind bars in the same year — of which 48 were natural deaths while three were suicides.
These statistics paint an incriminating picture. Prisons are a complex space within the general structure of society; incarceration implies being marked and staked out, being punished, being constantly looked at with suspicion, derision, disgust. Moreover, there is, simply put, virtually no provision for daycare or nurseries in prison. The complete lack of medical care for women’s health means that women have little say in their own reproductive lives. Furthermore, for the psychological development of the infant, there needs to be proper space for bonding between mother and child, and the inherent violence within prisons cannot be permitted to impede in the child’s growth.
This is compounded by the predominance of extremely unhealthy lifestyles that put the mothers — and children — at risk of disease and disorder. The fact is that many inmates require psychiatric and therapeutic help, and are not accounted for, adding to the dangerous atmosphere within such faculties. It is indicative of the mindset of a society that adopts a rigidly black-and-white approach to incarcerated citizens that they are indifferent to such horrendous living conditions; which is doubly harmful for women inmates and young mothers.
We need to revise our idea of ethics, which currently allows us to persecute a new life — with serious repercussions — simply because of the circumstances of the parent(s). Given the present reality of prisons in India, it is clear that these spaces are absolutely unfit for nurturing life. Prisons need to be better managed, and it is no secret that prisons in India are criminally understaffed.
The brunt of the conditions are borne by the socioeconomically disadvantaged sections of society, and is especially worse for underserved women, who are uniquely marginalised in this aspect. There is a need for trained staff to address the particular and peculiar conditions of social, biological and psychological development of the children. It cannot be left to the incarcerated mothers to take care of their offspring, for their have to be special accommodations and provisions made for the mothers themselves. These women already stand to lose their family, neighbourhood and community ties — it is our collective responsibility to work towards making interventions and advocate for more extenuating living conditions.
Every life counts, and it is a crime to be conveniently selective about the same.