Arthur Road Jail, built in 1926, is Mumbai’s largest and oldest jail. It houses most of the city’s prisoners. It is located near Sat Rasta (Seven Roads), between Mahalaxmi and Chinchpokli railway stations in the southern part the city. It was upgraded in 1994 to become a Central Prison and its official name is Bombay Central Prison. But, for the people of Mumbai, the heavily-guarded prison has always been known as Arthur Road jail.
Space is at a premium inside. The jail was built to accommodate 1074 prisoners but the average number of inmates is generally over 3,000 – far exceeding its capacity in terms of space, sanitation and other facilities.
Sodomy is rampant and the prevalence of HIV and tuberculosis is alarming. Around 180 prisoners are crammed in a cell designed to house 50. Prisoners have to sleep in awkward positions, making them susceptible to sexual overtures. Many succumb to their seniors, or gang leaders, in exchange for a little luxury like food or assurances of a job on release from the jail.
But for members of the crime syndicates, who tip guards and officers generously, a luxury lifestyle is always within easy reach. Almost all the 1993 serial bomb blast accused, for example, live in style, with easy access to alcohol and expensive cigarettes.
For those who belong to powerful gangs, it was easy to control underworld activities from within the jail by mobile phone. However, a newly-installed jammer (to block out mobile signals) may have put an end to that.
A few decades ago, this prison was one of the most feared in India, because of the treatment prisoners received from the inmate overseers. The cells were overcrowded and the prisoners had to sleep on blankets infested with lice. They were allowed to wash each day, but the ration of water was very little. If they stood up against the overseers they were punished in terrible ways.
The prison features in Gregory David Roberts award winning book Shantaram, which details his life on the run and his time spent in Bombay, which comprised of a stint in Arthur Road.