Are jails in Punjab dens of gangsters? With two incidents last week -- clashes in the Central Jail Ludhiana and the killing of a prime suspect in the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib in a high-security jail of Nabha town -- it would appear things are not normal.
The 2016 Nabha jailbreak in which gangsters freed six hardcore prisoners showed the mess and how convicts and others have been forced to live in inhuman conditions.
Officials also cite seizure of lethal weapons and mobile phones from jail premises, indicating the rot in prison management.
Punjab has 18 jails that house nearly 22,000 inmates, while it can only hold up to a maximum of 15,000.
The occupancy rate in some of the jails is as high as 150 per cent, say officials.
Overcrowding, poor jail management and understaffing are mainly responsible for the mess in the state prisons. They are also responsible for violence too, Upneet Lalli, Deputy Director with the Institute of Correctional Administration in Chandigarh, told IANS.
She said drugs, public health and corruption are the ills prevailing in most of the prisons.
"Overcrowded and understaffed prisons are more difficult to manage, leading to violence like the one in Ludhiana Central Jail," she said.
Lalli said it is only when a jailbreak or violence occurs that the issue of prison reforms comes to the fore. "It needs to be tackled at all levels as 67 per cent of the jail inmates in Punjab are under trial."
The recent disturbances in Ludhiana and Nabha jails have again focused attention on the need for jail reforms.
Official records show over 30 per cent posts meant for Punjab jails are vacant. There is a huge shortage of wardens or matrons. Most of the CCTVs and jammers are lying defunct. There is no provision of biometric attendance by inmates in any of the state prisons.
Against the national average of 6:1 ratio of prisoner and jail warden, the state has the ratio of 9:1.
It is money that matters in Punjab jails as there is no entry into the prison without a bribe.
"I need Rs 500 to bribe the jail official to visit my husband," says Dalbir Kaur (real name withheld).
Her husband has been an undertrial for house trespass and theft in the Patiala Central Jail for two years.
She said friends and family members of undertrial inmates who come to visit them are looted by jail officials. Otherwise, one has to wait for hours or even days.
According to Kaur, Rs 500 is charged for a regular meeting and Rs 200 to provide home food to an inmate.
Illegal drugs, knives and mobile phones are also finding their way into prisons.
The rampant use of mobile phones by inmates came to light during the bloody clash in the Ludhiana jail on June 27 when inmates made videoclips of the clash on their mobiles and posted them live on social media and micro-blogging sites like Facebook.
This clearly sheds light on the rising culture of mobile phone usage within prison walls, said a former prison officer, who agreed the problem is huge.
In the past one year, more than 500 mobile phones have been seized from various prisons.
Requesting anonymity, he said in almost every prison it is the lure of "easy money" that often tempts jail employees to bend the law by accepting bribes to facilitate the inmates, especially high-profile ones.
Officials blame the jail contractual staff -- Punjab Ex-Servicemen Corporation (PESCO) and Home Guard -- who are involved in frisking as they are underpaid and often get allured to bribes.
Sadly, it is politics that dominates prison management.
Jail Minister Sukhjinder Randhawa believes prison mismanagement by the previous Akali Dal-BJP government is mainly responsible for the mess.
"Both the incidents occurred as the jails remained neglected during the 10-year rule of the Akali Dal-BJP government. During this period, the work culture in the jails totally collapsed and we are finding it difficult to break the nexus between the jail staff and the inmates," Randhawa told IANS.
He said central security has been deployed for checking and frisking at six of the 10 high-security jails in the state.
Demanding the sacking of the Jail Minister, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) President Sukhbir Singh Badal said the violence in Ludhiana jail was the latest proof of "jungle raj" in the state.
"Prisoners rebelled, used gas cylinders to trigger blasts and even chased and injured prison guards, including a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), besides breaking out from the jail. This is indicative of a complete breakdown in administration of jails in Punjab," he said.
"Earlier, we witnessed cases of drug seizures and use of mobile phones in jails. The Patiala jail has even witnessed sodomy of jail inmates in league with jail officials to extort money from them," Badal added.
A latest study has painted a dismal picture of convicts and undertrials in Punjab owing to overcrowding, resulting in 70 per cent of inmates suffering from skin diseases.
Conducted in all state prisons by IIM-Ahmedabad, it says diseases like scabies, hypertension, hernia, kidney stones and diabetes are common among inmates due to unhygienic conditions. Skin diseases are also increasing because of sharing of quilts and blankets.
The prisons lack basic facilities such as washrooms and toilets, it said.
The report also cited vandalism being common in prisons and inmates form groups, resulting in clashes.