Prisons and ‘Discipline’ in India

by Shishir Bail

In 1977 French Philosopher Michel Foucault authored what is widely considered to be a seminal work in the study of incarceration and imprisonment; the book titled ‘Surveille et Punir’ in French which was later translated to English as ‘Discipline and Punish’. In it, he traced the evolution of the ‘the prison’ as an institution in European society and placed its emergence among subtle but deeply significant political-economic process. Prisons, he argued, represented the farthest tip of the disciplinary form of power that was taking shape in European society during the 19th Century. The disciplinary form, first seen in the schools, factories, hospitals and military of that time, operated above all through the careful observation of the minute actions and bodies of its recipients, and the constant manipulation and evaluation of these in view of fixed and non-malleable standards. Through these processes of subtle but constant subjection, the disciplinary form was vital in the creation and replication of a class of subjects suited to the economic and political imperatives of the industrial age. Following on from the 19th Century French architect Louis Baltard, Foucault evocatively described prisons as “complete and austere institutions”. They are complete in their control over the bodies of their prisoners, and in their strict, unending regulation of all the movements and processes in the daily lives of those imprisoned. It was this feature of ‘completeness’ that distinguished them from schools, hospitals, factories and the military as sites of the exercise of disciplinary power. While the latter could only control particular aspects of the lives and behavior of their subjects; once the subject was imprisoned, the prison assumed control over them all.

This account of the historical origin of the prison form is important because it gives us a useful vantage point from which to evaluate the engagement between prison authorities and prisoners in India. Foucault’s account of the prison is centred on three major features of this mode of incarceration. The first is the isolation of individual prisoners; the second is ‘work’ or ‘labour’ as an integral component of incarceration; the third is the assumption by the executive authority in the prison of the power to modulate, or even potentially terminate the duration and intensity of the sentence. Without going too far into Foucault’s account of the salience of these processes, I may simply draw a line that underlies all three. This is that all of the three features of the prison form that Foucault describes depend on a high level of engagement, knowledge and control on the part of the prison administration of the movements and behaviour of prisoners. I argue here for an understanding of the engagement between prison authorities and prisoners in India that is fundamentally different from this.

Prisons in India are managed and operated by different kinds of staff. The Model Prison Manual of 2003 sets out seven kinds of staff in prisons; namely Executive, Medical, Welfare, Educational, Technical and Agricultural. From these, a narrow subset of the Executive staff is responsible for the ‘policing’ of inmates and the consequent maintenance of discipline; these are known as the ‘Guarding Personnel’. Guarding Personnel, consisting of the ranks of ‘Chief Warder’, ‘Head Warder’ and ‘Warder’ are the primary interface between the prison authorities and the inmates. The Model Prison Manual prescribes that in principle, there is to be one member of guarding staff for every six inmates. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau; in the ten year period between 2001 and 2010, the ratio between guarding staff and prison inmates was roughly 1 for every 10 on average across the country. In contrast the United States, the highest incarcerator in the world, reported a ratio of correctional officers to inmates of 5.1 in 2005, while the United Kingdom reported a figure of 4 prisoners per prison officer on average between 2000 and 2006. The national figure however masks substantial differences between States; for instance, Jharkhand presented a ratio of 1 member of the guarding staff for every 28 prisoners, while Bihar and Gujarat were not too far behind with one member of the guarding staff for every 23 and 18 prisoners respectively. In contrast states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh reported ratios of guarding staff to prisoners of between 1 to 6 and 1 to 7; much closer to the prescribed amount. It is important to note however that these figures do not account for the shifts of the guarding staff. Prisons need to be watched over 24 hours a day, and it goes without saying that the actual numbers of guarding staff in relation to prisoners at any given time will be smaller than these depending on shift arrangements. On looking at the results reported across the country, it is clear that most, especially the larger States, are experiencing shortages of guarding staff in relation to prison inmates. This has instant implications for the manner in which prisons are run and ‘discipline’ is observed. Fewer staff members spread over larger numbers of prisoners are unable to keep a close enough track on their movements and behaviour. This shortfall in numbers also ensures that prison authorities are wary of taking openly antagonistic positions vis-à-vis prisoners, given their limited means of ensuring discipline, especially if the entire population mobilises against them.

What this translates to on the ground, is a relationship between inmates and the administration that is more tuned towards the achievement of a stable equilibrium than to the imposition of disciplinary methods in a top down fashion. The role of ‘Convict Officers’ in this regard is instructive; these are convicts who are selected by the Prison administration to aid in the maintenance of discipline and order in the prison. These persons perform an important physical function, but also serve as a vital via-medium between the prison authorities and the inmates. The provisions for productive work of different kinds in the larger Central Prisons may also be evaluated in this dual manner. It is important to note that this work is not ‘hard labour’ as conventionally associated with imprisonment. Instead, prisoners are given the opportunity of engaging in skilled or semi-skilled work such as carpentry, cooking, baking or working with textiles and are remunerated for this work. On the one hand this serves the stated purpose of rehabilitating them and giving them the skills necessary to re-integrate into society; on the other, it assures the prison authority a pool of persons who have a strong stake in the maintenance of order and cordial relations in the prison.

To conclude, I have argued that the empirical realities of prison administration in India render unlikely the picture of prisons in the Country as imposing an ‘unceasing discipline’ on their inmates. The process of prison administration in the country is more accurately seen as one of frequent dialogue; motivated by a desire on the part of the prison administration to maintain a stable equilibrium. The enlisting of convicts as convict officers, and the provisions of productive work for inmates may both be seen as elements of this larger objective.

(Shishir Bail works at the School of Policy and Governance, Azim Premji University, Bangalore)

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One Response to Prisons and ‘Discipline’ in India

  1. rings for me says:

    Another awesome article. Thanks to you.

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