Nun helps marginalized remand prisoners in Delhi prison

Presentation nun has special permission to enter the prison where she regularly offers legal help to needy inmates
Nun helps marginalized remand prisoners in Delhi prison

Presentation Sister Anastasia Gill in New Delhi in this file photo. ( photo) 

Presentation Sister Anastasia Gill is a beacon of hope for poor prisoners languishing in India's largest jail awaiting trial.

The nun, clad in a beige-colored sari, is a familiar figure at Tihar Central Prison in the capital, New Delhi.

Sister Gill, a criminal lawyer, has special permission to enter the prison where she regularly offers legal help to needy inmates.

Hundreds of them, mostly Dalits from a tribal background, remain in jail simply because they are too poor to find a lawyer or are too illiterate to file a bail application.

"They have no one to take up their cases," Sister Gill told

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The 50-year old nun began the mission five years ago.

After seeing the serious lack of awareness on legal procedures, she started 'role-playing' inside the prison to teach inmates about the legal and court and systems.

By acting out small scenes, the nun tells them where the judge sits and how the court proceedings work so that they do not lack confidence when appearing in a courtroom.

She tells prisoners about their rights and how to present the facts of their cases to judges.

Sister Gill has helped 800 people to either get bail or be released during the past five years.

The nun also appears in court for those inmates, often poor or abandoned by relatives, who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.

The fees of a private lawyer start from 50,000 rupees (US$781) for a bail application.

By the time trials are concluded, some families of defendants have to sell their homes. 

The nun said many prisoners had been locked up awaiting trial for longer than the sentences they faced if convicted for offences such as theft. This is why the issue of bail is so important.

Sister Gill said about 70 percent of some 14,200 people in Tihar Central Prison are accused of petty crimes. Some remain incarcerated even after being allowed bail because they are unable to raise the surety money.

Data from National Crime Records Bureau for 2014 show that across India's 1,387 jails, housing some 418,530 people, 60 percent of prisoners come from lower caste backgrounds and 70 percent are illiterate. The prisons are also grossly over-crowded.  

Young inmates could be sexually assaulted by older prisoners and their condition deteriorated if they remained in prison for a long time, the nun said.

More priests and nuns were needed to help prisoners.

Sister Gill said she started as a teacher in 1989, but had always felt that her real calling was to help the poor and the marginalized.

She completed her masters' in social work in 2000 and assisted self-help groups for women and in providing informal education for children. But the rape of a three-year-old tribal Catholic girl in the central Indian city of Bhopal in 2005, and the delaying of charges being laid, made her decide to obtain a law degree.

The nun realized she needed to know more about the law in order to deal with such cases. 

She secured a law degree in 2009 and worked with the voluntary Human Rights Law Network and began to visit people in the jail.

In 2013, she joined the Delhi State Legal Services Authority, a government agency providing legal help to the poor.

It was best to get into the government "machinery" and to work fearlessly, she said, adding that she is motivated by the smiles of freed prisoners.

Sister Gill was last month appointed as the member of Delhi Minorities Commission representing the Christian community.

"My schedule in the commission is very tight, but the work for poor prisoners will continue," she said.

An eight-member team of human rights activist lawyers consisting of nuns, priests and laity will continue to assist in the courts.

"Our vision is a new form of commitment through advocacy," Sister Gill said.

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