Unnecessary incarceration

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readApr 26, 2019

Source : Google photo of a very crowded jail in the Philippines

Synopsis : We often see simple ordinary people thrown in jail for minor infractions in many countries so they suffer needlessly and come out with trauma that bedevils them the rest of their life . The punishment given to anyone should be proportional to the offense so a reform in the penal system is needed to help those who have served their term to re assimilate into their society to live a productive life.

There was a time in the United Kingdom of Great Britain where a child of 10 years of age was tried and convicted of a crime for stealing a loaf of bread because he was hungry and was ordered to be transported. Did you know what that word meant in England in those days? It meant that a convict was sent to Australia on a rickety slave ship that took over a month to reach Australia in the company of other convicts charged with dubious crimes surviving often on just a loaf of bread and water .

Now you can imagine how the bread can turn into a moldy lump during such a long sea voyage with some added vermins thrown in for taste but the convicts had no choice but to survive their horrendous ordeal not knowing what awaited them at their destination. It was better for them not to know because the penal colony of Australia in those days was barren with absolutely no facilities to house and feed anyone let alone undesirables from England so the convicts were put to work to cut stones and make bricks to build shelters first.

It was worse than slave labor for even the children because no one was spared from working. No one could run away because where could they go? It was a vast continent where only the native Australians managed to survive based on their survival skills honed over centuries but they were not eager to help the new arrivals and watched them with suspicion.

So from the Botany bay where they landed, the colony spread toward other coastal areas giving rise to towns and cities later but it took them hundreds of years to do so while the convict ships kept arriving with more people including women and children. Never in the history of mankind a colony was established with the sweat and tears of white people so far from their homeland but that is how Australia was established.

There is a family name called Everingham that has multiplied and spread all over Australia now but once in a while they all gather somewhere to greet each other and remember the first Everingham who had arrived there as a convict for some frivolous misdemeanor centuries ago.

The United Kingdom at that time found it convenient to transport all their undesirables to Australia because their jails were already full and building new jails cost a lot money so it was a cheaper solution and gain a foothold in a new continent called Australia. It was a wild gamble but it paid off handsomely when they discovered gold and precious gems there later by accident. So they sent men , women and children to fend for themselves and the prostitutes who were so poorly equipped to do so in a far away and strange country.

The governor general of the penal colony was the judge ,jury and executioner rolled into one so many convicts were flogged or even hanged for some infractions because he was supposed to uphold the law and order and somehow make the colony profitable for England so he was relentless in pushing the convicts to work harder and start planting crops for food . This was really hard for them because back in England they were not farmers and did not have the skills to grow their own food. What did children and prostitutes know about farming or doing hard labor to cut stones and make bricks?

This bit of history is the background over which I want to paint the story of crime and punishment now and see where we have arrived since those days and where we are going in the future .

There are millions of common people all over the world who are incarcerated for simple crimes like jaywalking or stealing a loaf of bread or selling cigarette somewhere without a permit so nothing has changed since the Everinghams arrived in Australia. The penal system and the facilities to jail the convicts varies from country to country but the size of the incarcerated people all over the world keeps on growing .

In the United States alone , it is estimated that over two million people are behind bars and more are being jailed daily so more jails are being built to accommodate them so the government relies on private contractors to build the jails for them and maintain them . It has become a very big business for the private contractors to build jails all over the country because they make huge amount of money and are happy to turn the whole country into jails if that is what makes them rich.

In other countries like here in the Philippines, the government has little or no money to build new jails so they keep pushing new arrivals into cells that are already overcrowded with no room to spare for the new inmates. It is like over crowded rats in a small room leading to frequent fights for survival so the jails have their gangs that rule over the inmates. They are brutal and violent who can kill someone with impunity because they are there for life so who can punish them more?

The gang lords can carry on illegal drug smuggling, trade in contraband and run the prison anyway they want so the new inmates either submit to their will or be forced to do so by threats, beatings and sexual assaults so by and large the inmates accept the rules just to survive there. The old crooks just laugh when they hear someone say that he was framed and is innocent. The warden and the guards do the same. Why are you here if you are innocent? Their belief in their justice system is unshakable.

There is a story about a fellow who was a very educated person and was jailed for some bank fraud so the warden hired him to do his book keeping because the man was a talented accountant who kept a very good record of all the bribes the warden was taking and stashing it away in some banks. This ledger was kept by the warden in a safe after each entry but one day the convict was released after his term ended.

When the warden opened the safe, he found a blank ledger because the accountant had departed with the real ledger in his hand that he used to find all the money of the warden in banks, withdrew all of them using fake ID and real passwords etc. that he managed to get while in prison and then handed over the ledger to the police. When the police came to arrest the warden, he shot himself. This is perhaps just a story for the movies but such cases do happen in prisons.

In some countries where racism is widespread, the people of dark skin bear the brunt of the penal system and suffer the most. If they are released after sometime then they bear the scar of their prison life the rest of their life and try to survive as best as they can. Some are so traumatized by their brutal experience that they fail to overcome and adjust to the society again.

So now I come to the analysis part of this blog and ask why is it that people are still incarcerated for minor misdemeanor like jay walking or stealing a loaf of bread when he is hungry? Why women are separated from their children and their home for a simple breach of law that perhaps they did not know anything about?

Did you know that there are hundreds of thousands of obsolete laws that the police in many countries still use to jail people because there has never been a serious attempt to reform the penal system? The common people may not know all the laws they must obey all the time so they can get into trouble very easily so they are arrested over minor traffic violations or some such things , booked at the police station and finger printed where they take the mug shots and create a dossier on that person. This dossier is constantly updated each time the person is arrested on some frivolous charges that may not even be real.

The police dossier on a person is like a stain on his or her reputation so it may prevent him to get a college education or a job later because the employer may want a police clearance. This stain no matter how unfair is like indelible ink that can’t be washed away.

In some countries , there are some courageous people who have tried to make jails better for the inmates but they are so rare that I must tell this story just to show you what is possible if there is a will. This story should inspire all the jail wardens to reform their system.

There is a very infamous jail in Delhi called Tihar where many convicts were kept in abominable conditions. Prison riots were common due to the poor quality food and living conditions where hard core criminals are kept with others jailed for simple crimes. This changed when a female jail warden took the job and went about improving the jail and its living conditions almost immediately. She sorted out those people who could learn a trade like carpentry, baking or cooking etc. and provided them with training.

The convicts then started to bake bread, cakes and various other things that were sold outside and the profit was distributed among the convicts. Others made bags, wallets etc. that were also sold and the profits shared . The warden dramatically improved the quality of food for all the inmates , made sure that they all had some physical activity through sports and made Tihar jail as the model for all the jails anywhere . The released inmates who had acquired some skills in baking and other things got some loans later to set up their own business and prosper.

The lady warden was acclaimed as the best warden for improving the jail and the conditions for the inmates and was given many awards but it did not sit well with others in the penal system who were green with envy and blocked her further promotion to the extent that she was prevented to go to the White House where President Obama had invited her because he had heard what she had achieved.

She had shown that the jails do not have to be hellish where the people suffer needlessly. She had shown a way to train them and get some skills that allowed them to set up their own business when they were let out so that they could support themselves and their family.

This story could be emulated everywhere because the vast majority of people in jail are released after serving their term but find it hard to live a normal life somewhere with a good job and raise a family.

There was a time when a person charged with a simple felony or misdemeanor was given a fine and a warning and let go. The serious offenders were given stricter punishments after a brief verification of facts so Emperor Akbar ordered their execution. He kept a monstrous elephant in Fateh Pur Sikri that was trained to step on the chest of a convict to crush him. During the monarchy, the crime rate was low so people lived in peace.

Then came the notorious justice system and zillions of laws for the common people to obey so they started building massive jails using tax payer’s money . The courts now have a back log of cases pending due to the massive corruptions in their system that the lawyers take full advantage of to keep a guilty person out of jail. This is their bread and butter so they want the cases to languish in courts for years. This brings enormous grief to the litigants in terms of time and money spent who only want a quick justice but the system does not allow it.

Once a court sends a man to prison, his ordeal really starts where he is abused by other inmates.Women are not spared either in jails where the hard core female inmates do the same as their male counterparts. The Ashley Judd movie the Double jeopardy is worth watching where the story of a female convict wrongly put in prison who gets her revenge when she gets out is graphically shown with superb acting.

I think the jails serve a purpose to keep really bad people there who have committed serious crimes but the ordinary people should not be treated this way and should be allowed to go after paying a small fine or a warning so that they can continue to live their life. This means that the penal system has to undergo a very serious reform to reduce the number of people incarcerated and reduce the tax payers burden.

The reform must start in the judicial system where a speedy justice should become normal and where the greedy lawyers must be told to speed up the process and not delay. There is nothing more depressing than the courts where you see hundreds of black gowned lawyers milling around like vultures looking for their next kill.

Most people are simple folks who are law abiding so they should not be punished this way for simple mistakes. We all make mistakes and hopefully learn from it. The justice system should after all be fair and should focus on those people who are by nature bad and do bad things.

I hope that someday all jail wardens will follow the example of that lady warden in Tihar who so impressed President Obama.

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