Lockdown isn’t prison; After 14 years in jail, I know it crushes soul

New Delhi: Locked in my two-room house for more than 40 days, I stand every day near my window smiling at the sunlight, and appreciating the rare blue skies of Delhi. I look for signs of life around me – pigeons, and kites in the day and moon and stars in the night.

Much like the rest of the humanity across the world that finds itself in an unprecedented lockdown, I too struggle to make sense of this isolation and silence around us.

But this isn’t my first time being confined. In the past too, I have looked outside to try to find life. Not through a window, but through bars, outside my solitary confinement ward in the Tihar Central Jail. The past one-and-a-half months have been re-play of the memories and emotions I felt during the 14 years I was in prison.

I am not alone. Since the declaration of lockdown, I have come across several people comparing their experience of being confined in their homes to prison. “It feels like a prison,”various friends and acquaintances have told me. “I feel suffocated in the four walls now. When will we be free and be able to meet our friends and family again?”

I cannot completely appreciate the use of the metaphor of being in prison for the lockdown.

Arrested illegally

I was confined in three different prisons, Tihar Central Jail, in Delhi, Dasna District Jail in Ghaziabad and the Rohtak District Jail from 1998 to 2012. Illegally arrested, at the age of 19, over fabricated charges of terrorism, I have spent 14 years of my life in jail.

today again, I find myself confined to four walls without sense of time, struggling to remember dates and days of weeks. Life wears a deserted, silent look yet again.

On sheer level of logistics, I find myself in similar position. Much like jail, I am avoiding hand shakes, not out of fear of breaking the hierarchies of prison but out of fear of spread of virus. The pass system granting limited permissions of venturing outside looks like the parole system to me, although not all prisoners could be afford it. My uncut hair and messy shave too is reminder of my prison time.

But for all the similarities, this isn’t prison. Nothing kills human spirit like prison.

Denied human touch

Today, although confined in our homes, we are with our families. We have our parents, partner and children to share our sorrows and smiles with. Prison does not allow you luxury of family. Although prisoners are allowed to meet their families once or twice in a week, but in that small mulaqaatroom
in prison, bursting with 100 different voices of prisoners, and jail authorities, there is no privacy. In fact, a one-meter gap of wire mesh and grilles stands between you and your family. You cannot see your loved ones closely. You cannot touch them, hug them or cry with them. I was denied a comforting hug, a touch of loved ones for 14 years.

Sometimes you are not even allowed to meet your family in emergency situations.

Today, we have the luxury of opening windows, staring at the sky and stars. In prison, I did not see stars for 14 years.

(I call all these things a luxury because many of our fellow citizens, the homeless, the migrants are away from their homes and families. They don’t have these luxuries. Most of them are struggling for even two meals a day.)

We have the luxury of the internet, calling friends, staying updated about the world. In prison, you are caged. Disconnected with the world, all you have is a continuous desperate wait for court dates and returning to “normal” life.

The horror of solitary confinement

Instead, our prison system actively recognises practices of isolation. The inhumane soul-crushing practice of solitary confinement is still part of the system. Tanhai as it is called, solitary confinement denies one of the most basic rights of a human being: the right to be able to interact with a fellow human being.

You are confined in an 8×6 cell in deserted corner of prison away from other prisoners. You are not allowed to meet other prisoners, and are only allowed to go out of cell for one or two hours in a day. Walk, eat, sleep, bath, pee – you do all of this in that small cell. Unsurprisingly, solitary confinement leads to mental health crisis, anxiety, depression and even suicidal tendencies for life.

So, no. This is nothing like prison. We are not in jails. We have been simply asked to follow norms of social distancing and staying home for control of spread of a deadly virus.

But yes, I acknowledge that isolation, uncertainty, fear, silence, and helplessness are common feelings between both experiences.

And I believe that today when we have been given glimpse of how isolation feels perhaps we should take a lesson on need of making our prison systems more human. Today when we are struggling with limited space to move and walk, let’s think of those confined in 8×6 solitary confinement cell. When we struggle to stay in touch with our loved ones away from home, let us think of those in the dingy mulaaqaat rooms of India’s prisons.

Our prisons are still operating under a colonial structure with little human touch. The demand of reforming the system is urgent. It cannot be delayed any further. I hope that the lockdown teaches us that.

By Mohammad Aamir Khan

Mohammad Aamir Khan is the co-author of Framed As A Terrorist: My 14 Year Struggle to Prove My Innocence and a human rights activist working with Aman Biradari. He was awarded Rs 5 lakh compensation by the National Human Rights Commission for his wrongful prosecution by state machinery. Read an excerpt from his book here.

The article has been edited and translated into English by Surbhi Karwa, an alumna of the National Law University, Delhi.

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