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An Ethnographic Deconstruction

Radhika Raturi

By Mahuya Bandyopadhyay
Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 354, Rs. 845.00


The state defines prison as a space for the isolation and reform of individuals not fit to live in society. Prisoners narratives of everyday life are jabs in this faade that bleed over the fabric of total spaces and stain it with its own fallacies. Mahuya Bandyopadhyays account makes a departure from the existing literature on Indian prisons and focuses on how human agency thrives even within state edifices. Agency though represented by a mere attempt at resistance reflects a Lacanian understanding that power and subordination of rules have a structure but one that is fundamentally flawed and constituted through its own transgressions. The ethnographic quest is situated within the 52-acre central jail in Kolkata. The placement of the ethnography in the interactional space between the edifice of brick jail codes hierarchy and the human component is psychologically significant. In the first part of the book Bandyopadhyay shows how the working of a prison is similar to the management of other social organizations. The warders are the agents of the bureaucracy and interact directly with the prisoners. In keeping with the character of most state machinery power and authority is delegated top down. Bandyopadhyay points out how the jail ministry in Bengal was part of the larger Left Front government and the blurring of lines between administration and political network impacts the running of the institution. Security safety and discipline are paramount in the formal rules of the organization. The rules are centered around preventing gang fights escapes separation of prisoners based on their perceived dangerousness frequency of offensive acts and gender. Only long-term convicts are allowed a raw diet which includes rations and are permitted to cook their own food. The convicts are also involved in work within the premises the most prestigious work being that of a writer. Writers work with the office administration maintaining warrants admission registers and other such jobs. There are also trusted prisoners who are assigned work in the kitchens or are responsible for the Guntithe counting of the prisoners at regular intervals. In the modern criminal justice system work is a way of punishing prisoners. Bandyopadhyay shows their attempts to reclaim normalcy through work and retaining a sense of power and identity. As expressed in the words of a prisoner convicted for murdereverything that happens in the world outside happens here as well. Earlier I used to work in a manufacturing department in ...

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