Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe
Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe

From cholera to coronavirus

How prisons in contemporary India continue to follow the colonial handbook.

(This article is part of our special series Unmasking Southasia: The pandemic issue. You can read the editorial note to the series here.)

Two political reactions to the spread of epidemics in prisons in India – over 150 years apart – suggest that history continues be relevant in understanding contemporary responses to the pandemic. In 1863, Dr C Plank, the administrator of the Agra Central Prison, penned a sanitary report in which he noted that "the inmates of a large Prison, such as the one under notice, are so placed as to offer peculiar advantages in the study of epidemic disease." He traced the impact of a cholera outbreak in the prison from May to August 1862, noting the rapid spread of the disease and the rising morality rate among the prisoners. For Plank, the proper administrative response to an outbreak of cholera was to "spread" the prisoners as much as possible, including keeping different prison work gangs from interacting with each other. Ultimately, however, he argued that once the disease had taken hold in a prison, it was nearly impossible to prevent high mortality, particularly because "medical treatment was so entirely useless" against cholera.

Plank and his contemporaries sought some minor reforms to prison organisation and labour systems in order to contain cholera epidemics. Nonetheless, they framed the prison system as fundamentally inflexible, and epidemic illnesses as an unfortunate reality of prison life. Mid-19th-century British prison administrators argued that while improving the health and sanitation of prisons was important, it should never come at the cost of their systems of discipline and control over prisoners.

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Himal Southasian