<%-- Page Title--%> Human Rights <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 153 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 7, 2004

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The Silver Lining in Dhaka's Overflowing Slammer

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Prison life in Bangladesh usually entails being cramped in a cell three times over its capacity, rarely having space to breathe, let alone sleep at night. It involves having to jump over cell-mates to get to the toilet, washrooms packed with jostling prisoners and water scarcity -- allowing some prisoners to shower only once a week. It also means food shortage, mosquito bites and unwashed blankets -- used as covers and pillows -- which contribute to the wide spread of skin disease among inmates, along with tuberculosis, jaundice, peptic ulcer, diarrhoea and heart disease. The prison hospital, with its four doctors and one nurse, attends to 500 patients daily.

Add to this the 3,000 people currently imprisoned after the mass arrests being made in the city recently. Over 15,000 (unofficial) people were arrested in the first eight days of the arrest spree. Though, after instructions to halt it, the number of arrested per day went down from 2,000 to about 150, many remain imprisoned in dire conditions due to the inefficiency of the jail authorities in handling the overwhelming number of cases on hand.

On any normal day, the Dhaka Central Jail, with a capacity of 2,682 prisoners, accommodates more than 10,000 convicted, charged or detained individuals. The recent mass arrests have carried over this number to above 13,000 prisoners, many of whom claim to be innocent, most of whom are not hardened criminals and thus not used to prison life.

While inmates are usually packed in "Hilsa files" (one lying half over the other in their cells) as is the common joke among them, during the last week, some of them have had to stay in the toilets due to lack of space. Prisoners who are given two pieces of bread and two bananas are considered lucky compared to those who are given one, or half, or none. Luckier still are those whose relatives can afford to bribe jail officials to sneak in their loved ones some good food, for, in jails, just like everywhere else in Bangladesh, everything carries a price.

To get information on one's relatives costs between Tk. 50 and Tk. 100; meeting them costs Tk. 80 (up from the normal fee of Tk. 2), and getting them out of jail, even after they've been given bail, costs around Tk. 300. Some people, after paying to find out where their son or brother is, how he is, and for lawyers and court formalities, have no money left to pay for the final release.

Prisoners carrying anything personal themselves, from cash to sandals, have been known to lose them as well. While police took away 20 taka from 18-year-old Alam -- which was all the money he had -- a watermelon trader, arrested from Dhaka Stadium where he had gone to buy mobile phones for his two brothers, lost the 17,000 taka he was carrying in his pocket soon after his arrest as a suspected political activist of the opposition party trying to topple the government.

There is a Bangla saying -- "<>Karo poush maash, karo shaurbonaash<>" -- that means something like, one person's good days are another's disaster or downfall. So true. While thousands of people are being caught off the streets and slammed into jail, passing days in the grimmest of situations while many of their whereabouts remain unknown to family and friends, at least the police and jail officials in our city are having a hey day.



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