chapter  7
19 Pages

Taking the snake out of the basket: Indian prison warders’ opposition to human rights reform


These were the words of a young prison warder, uttered early one morning while we were sitting on his wooden bunk in the staff barracks of Tihar Jail, New Delhi, sipping tea and chatting about work.1 I had come to Tihar Jail to explore how junior prison staff – the subordinates – were dealing with a reputedly extraordinarily successful reform process championed by Indian ‘super cop’ Kiran Bedi, who with zest and courage had turned the notorious hellhole of the prison into a ‘collective-corrective-community’ of international acclaim. Kiran Bedi had emphasized spirituality and new management techniques as the cornerstones of prison reform. Her successors, striving to live up to Tihar’s new image as ‘the Mecca of prison management’, had decided to implement a human rights course for all subordinate staff, and the warder on the bunk was about to take the course. He expressed a general perception among his colleagues of human rights as a threat. This chapter unpacks this opposition, showing how human rights are both opposed and evoked by the state bureaucrats who are to implement them at ‘street-level’ in a ‘total institution’.