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India: Conjugal rights debate puts focus on jail reform

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
November 7, 2022

After India's Punjab state became the first in the country to allow conjugal rights for prisoners, rights activists hope the scheme could be a nationwide example.

Security personnel and people gather in front of a gate of the Tihar prison in New Delhi, India
India's prison population continues to increase, with more than 554,000 prisoners recorded in 2021, an increase from around 466,000 in 2018Image: Anindito Mukherjee/dpa/picture alliance

Since September, prisoners in the northern Indian state of Punjab have been allowed conjugal visits, which proponents say can improve rehabilitation and preserve family bonds during jail terms.

The conjugal visit scheme, India's first, is allowed in 17 of Punjab's 26 prisons after a test run at three prisons.

"It will improve marriage ties, reduce stress on prisoners and hopefully help in reformation. Priority will be for shortlisted prisoners with good behavior," said Harpreet Singh Sidhu, the state's director general of prisons, when the scheme started.

The visits are limited to meetings of two hours every two months in a secure room with an attached bathroom and basic furniture. Gangsters, high-risk prisoners and inmates involved in sexual offenses are excluded.

Will other states follow Punjab?

Currently, there is no nationwide provision in the legal framework governing prisoners allowing conjugal visit rights. Some activists say this should change.

"The Punjab prison department has taken an important step by providing low-risk prisoners the opportunity to meet with their spouses," Madhurima Dhanuka, the head of the prison reforms program at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, told DW.

"There are a number of benefits of granting facilities like this especially as prisons are considered to be places of reformation and rehabilitation," she added.

India's packed prisons may be courting disaster

Conjugal visits are allowed in many countries around the world to add incentives for prisoners to follow rules and maintain good behavior.

"As society evolves, there is realization and increased understanding of the value of continued conjugal relations for the well-being of a person," Dhanuka said.

In Indian prisons, family members of incarcerated people have a tough time waiting in long queues leading to jam-packed visitors rooms inside the prison, for a visit that is usually brief.

But the issue of conjugal visits currently remains in the hands of state-level courts. For example, the Madras High Court in the southern state of Tamil Nadu has ruled that conjugal visits are "a right and not a privilege."

Reforming India's jails

India's prison population continues to rise, with more than 554,000 prisoners recorded in 2021, an increase from around 466,000 in 2018. More than 77% of these prisoners are sitting in pre-trial detention, according to official figures. 

Navsharan Singh, a political scientist and researcher, told DW that alternatives to incarceration should be considered for different categories of offenders.

This would include allowing those awaiting trial to have the chance to live in their communities and to give support to their children and family members.

She added that women prisoners also need to be included in conjugal visit schemes.

"At the moment, the policy seems to be framed with male prisoner as the norm," said Singh.

Uma Chakravarti, a historian and filmmaker, who has documented prisons in India, said more needs to be done to "humanize" conditions and administration of prisons, before expanding rights to conjugal visits.

"Why privilege conjugality over other relationships in Indian jails? There is absolutely no human bonding in prisons. Jail conditions are abysmal and that should be improved first. Dignify jails and then let's take it to another level," Chakravarti told DW.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11