Monday, September 04, 2006

Jailhouse talk

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

For Swati Sathe, the superintendent of the notorious Arthur Road jail, keeping an eye on 3000 edgy inmates is a job that has its charms

Shevlin Sebastian Mumbai

“No criminal is 100 per cent black or white. They are not watertight compartments in a human being. Sometimes one is wrong, one is bad, one is negative.” That, summed up, is Swati Sathe’s approach to correctional administration, the technical term for handling inmates in a prison. The jail superintendent of Mumbai’s notorious Arthur Road Prison elaborates, “Even a murderer has a bright side. One may be a good singer, another may be an artist. I have also found that most criminals are good with their hands. I see that clearly when they make the decorations for the various religious functions we have here.”

At first glance, Sathe, 39, looks like an ordinary housewife, in her yellow salwar kameez with a maroon dupatta thrown carelessly over her shoulders. Unlike most women, she wears no rings or bangles. She has a firm, no-nonsense air about her. But when she smiles, the brown eyes soften and become warm.

An unsmiling constable serves us half-cups of tea as we talk in Sathe’s office, which looks more like a hospital room, with its pale blue tiles and fluorescent lights. Her table is bare, except for a couple of files, with a white string holding the papers together. Behind her, on a door, is a small sticker of Shirdi Sai Baba. To one side, leaning against one wall is a lathi.

“Think of the ‘93 BBC (Bomb Blasts Case) accused,” she continues. “They have been in jail for 13 years. A person can achieve so much in that time. Take my own life-- 13 years ago, where was I? Imagine, if I had spent the last 13 years in prison, what a waste it would have been. Is it any surprise that most of them are bitter, angry and frustrated?”

In the silence and austerity of the room, it is difficult to believe that just a few yards away, in inhumanly cramped barracks, live the most notorious gangsters, hoodlums, TADA detainees, the ‘93 blast accused and killers of the underworld. 3000 of them in a prison meant for 804 people.

Unusual choice

Now here’s the puzzle: Why would a woman want to spend her life keeping an eye on such an edgy collection of people? Sathe smiles, “I joined this profession because I wanted to do something different. I did not want a 10 to 5 job.” Not even in the police department. “To catch somebody is a routine police job,” she says. “But to correct somebody is more difficult and interesting.”

Sathe, the first woman to be appointed jail superintendent in India, admits, “I was appointed as an experiment. My seniors wanted to see whether I could handle this responsibility. But I was not afraid at all.”

It has not been easy of course. She says she had to work towards acceptance by colleagues, the staff and the prisoners. Especially the prisoners, who doubted if she could solve their problems. “But after 11 years in this profession,” she says, “I have realised there is only one distinction in everybody’s eyes: Whether I am a competent or a incompetent officer. Not whether I am a woman.”

Sathe certainly has her work cut out for her. The Arthur Road prison is horribly overcrowded (around 180 prisoners stay in a cell meant for 50), the food is of poor quality, sodomy is said to be rampant and prison guards, it is said, collect a hafta to provide goodies for those who have the money to pay.

And the number of deaths in custody are rising, the latest being Gateway killer Uzer Patel, who, the police say, died of Aids. Sathe defends herself: “At Arthur Road prison, prisoners come from all over Maharashtra for better treatment, which is not available at the district level. So, some of them succumb to their illnesses.” And Patel? “When Patel entered the jail, he already had a lot of health problems,” she insists.

What about the sodomy? Not as bad as is reported in the press, she says.

And hafta? “Once your image is established, nobody will dare offer you a bribe,” she says. “Initially, people would test me by offering me a plot in some housing society. Others would say, ‘Madam, your house looks very simple. So many big people come to your house and you live so simply. Let me decorate it for you.’”

She says she dealt with all of them with her 3-C formula:
1) Do not entertain Corrupt people.
2) Do not entertain the Chaaplus (flatterers).
3) Do not entertain the Chuglikhor (those who tell tales).

During my research for this piece, I was intrigued to discover that even a tough-as-nails jail superintendent can have rumours of the personal kind floating around her. When I ask her about them, she looks unfazed. “This happens with every working woman in India,” she says. “There is a saying in Hindi: Haathi chalta bazaar, to kutte bhonkte hazaar ('When the elephant walks through the market, the dogs will bark'). In my profession, when people want to bring a person down, they will accuse a man of being corrupt, a woman of sleeping around. As for me, I am answerable only to my conscience and to God.”
The balm of music

Sathe was born in Kolkata, the daughter of a scientist who worked in the central government. She studied in Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Chandigarh and did her masters in social work in Nagpur, specialising in criminology and correctional administration. After sitting for a state public service examination, she was selected in 1995 and, following a two-year probation, she became superintendent of the jail at Satara. There, she conducted innovative tobacco-free and health camps. Later, she had stints at Akola and Byculla, before getting the prestigious Arthur Road posting in February 2003. In March 2005, she became the principal of the Jail Officer’s Training College in Pune. A little more than a year later, she was posted once again to Arthur Road prison.

Has the constant interaction with criminals deadened her sensibilities? Killed something inside her? Sathe shakes her head. “When I go back to my family every day (she stays in a three-bedroom quarters on the top floor with her husband and daughter), I feel a sense of peace.” Incidentally, it is compulsory for the jail staff to stay in the prison.

“You have to meditate a lot,” she continues. “You have to listen to good music and read good books.” What kind of books? The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma and The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown are those that come to mind for her. And what kind of music does she listen to? Strictly classical-- singer Kishori Amonkar and flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia. “Good music relaxes you,” she says.
Like the average over-stressed Mumbaikar, Swati Sathe needs to let go sometimes, I guess.


  1. Hi Shevlin,

    I am a researcher in Australian currently researching the Arthur Road Jail for a Television Documentary. I read your article with the Jail Superintendent Swati Sathe today.

    As a journalist, I was hoping that you would be able to help me or point me in the right direction for information about the jail.

    Please email me at if you have any information.

    Many thanks,
    T Crotty
    Southern Star Australia

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