Mumbai: ‘We are outside, but helpless, in a bigger jail’

Ever since the pandemic struck, jailed former DU professor GN Saibaba’s family were anxious that he might contract the infection in the Nagpur Central jail where he is lodged. They had applied for parole, which was rejected. Their fears came true when the professor, who has 19 health issues, many of which he developed in jail, in a routine twice-a-month phone call allowed by the jail, on February 9, informed them that he was suffering symptoms of the virus.

The following day, his wife AS Vasantha, who lives in Delhi and her brother-in-law Ramadev Gokarakonda wrote to the jail superintendent that he must be tested. On February 13, the jail informed them that Saibaba had tested positive for coronavirus the previous day. 10 prisoners in his barrack had also tested positive.

“I have been so upset after I heard about it, I would have slipped into depression, but I want to fight for him,” says Vasantha. The 53-year-old has been suffering migraine attacks and headaches because of the stress. “We are outside, but helpless and feel it is a bigger jail as we cannot do anything for him,” she says.

“When we get a call from jail, we are afraid what we will hear,” she says. The past six months have been hard for the family - with Saibaba’s mother passing away in August last year due to cancer, her brother-in-law Ramadev contracting COVID-19, being hospitalized and three deaths in her sister-in-law’s family, two of which were due to COVID-19.

His 23-year-old daughter Manjeera says the situation is all the more stressful as they do not get regular and reliable updates from jail about her father’s health. After he tested positive, they have received only two phone calls from him. They call the jail regularly to know his status, but all they get are mechanical answers that he is doing well, while many times the guards do not know the actual situation of each prisoner.

“There is a possibility this (virus) could take his life. It is hard to sleep at night with the constant worry. While I am sleeping peacefully, I wonder what suffering my father must be going through - whether he needs water, medicine or has a backache or heart palpitation and if there is help around,” says Manjeera.

Dr. Saibaba on a phone call informed them that a jail inmate who has also tested positive has been assigned to attend to him. But the family is unsure if a person who is himself in need of rest and care, can take care of another patient, that too, one with severe comorbidities, such as his heart problem and polio-related weak lung.

Anup Kumar Kumre, jail superintendent of Nagpur Central Prison said that there are three doctors in prison who are observing the patients and that all necessary treatment is being provided inside the prison.

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