Outside the tall, grey walls of Byculla women’s prison, a brightly lit room with walls painted with flowers and rainbows is set to be the state’s first creche for children of prisoners and prison personnel.
The creche called Nanhe Kadam (small steps) was inaugurated by senior officials of the prison department on Friday. It will operate from 8 am to 6 pm, giving a few hours away from the closed walls to children up to the age of six, lodged in the adjacent jail with their mothers.
The Supreme Court had in 2006 directed that a creche and a nursery shall be run by prison authorities preferably outside the jail premises for children of women prisoners.
Children up to the age of six are allowed to stay with their mothers in prisons, following which they can be sent in the care of family members outside or a children’s home in the absence of any relative. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the ground floor space in the staff quarters of Byculla prison was being utilised for running an anganwadi for the children.
Children of women prisoners were brought out of the jail for a couple of hours, given mid-day meal and engaged in a few activities before being taken back. Shut during the pandemic, the prison officials said that they thought of reopening it as a creche for children so that they can be outside the jail for a longer duration.
Special Inspector General of Police, Yogesh Desai, said: “We decided to start with this programme so that children can spend more time outside, learning some activities. We also realised that our staffers, especially those whose spouses worked, had very few options when it came to their children’s care during their work hours. It was then decided to extend it to the staffers as well.” There have been instances where women staffers had to leave their children in the care of women prisoners during duty hours. A few staffers said that they had to leave their children by themselves at home or at private creches.
Smita Dharmamer of NGO Aagan, which is collaborating with the department in the functioning of the creche, said that while the children of women prisoners are currently over 10, that number will be fluctuating since most prisoners at Byculla jail are undertrials.
Byculla prison superintendent Pallavi Kadam said that while children of staffers are currently less than 10, it is expected that there will be an average of 50 children using the creche in a year. “A schedule will be drawn based on the age of the children, the working hours of their parents – the women staffers. Besides three staffers, the programme will also have volunteers who will look into early childhood care and hold parenting sessions. Activities will be developed to hone their motor skills and teach them alphabets,” Dharmamer said.
The earlier anganwadi outside the jail was opened in 2012 following advocacy by Prayas, a field action project by the Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Prison officials said that similar creches will be opened across the state. A Supreme Court order had said that the socialisation pattern of children living within the jail was severely affected. Officials said that many children till the age of six, growing inside a jail, were unaware of the outside world, including what a dog is or a cat is.
“It will be our endeavour to open such creches outside other prisons across the the state as well where there are women prisoners. Inside jails, there is a separate space given for women with children but they also need to be taken out of the jail for their proper growth. Prisoners feel that their children should not be made to suffer and we want to ensure that this will be the first step towards their overall development,” said Amitabh Gupta, Additional Director General (Prisons).