In India's prisons, high bail demands keep the poor languishing behind bars for years

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Sixteen-year-old Suraj Chaudhry has been waiting for most of his life: for lawyers, for justice, for his father's eventual release from the prison after 14 years.

His father should have been let out in 2003, but the impoverished family could not pay the 24,000 rupee bail (then worth $522, now worth $360) set by the court in the north Indian city of Lucknow. Suraj says his father was framed for murder because he was from the outcast "dalit" community, also known as "untouchables," within India's ancient system of caste hierarchies.

"So my father was sent to jail, while a rich man from our village who belongs to an upper caste and is behind that murder is roaming free," Suraj said, leaning against a wooden pillar within the High Court compound, where he has become a regular. Each day after working his job in a tea shop, Suraj insists he will not leave "until I get an answer" on when his father might be released. But as the sun goes down, he eventually leaves, vowing to return the next day.

There are tens of thousands of prisoners like Suraj's father in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where at least 70 percent of the state's 84,228 inmates have languished in jail because they cannot afford to pay bail while their cases take years or even decades to wend through India's notoriously slow and backlogged judicial system, according to the state's Jail Ministry.

Lawyers familiar with Suraj's father's case said his only hope was to find the money. "Unless he deposits surety in court, he will not be released," elderly advocate Mohammed Anis Siddaqi said.

But for Suraj, who is illiterate, the bail amount is out of reach. He makes just 5,000 rupees (about $76) a month working in a roadside cafe, while his mother earns the same from her job as a maid. It is often not enough to support their family of six, including Suraj's grandparents.

"Justice seems very costly for the poor in India," said Lenin Raghuvanshi, who heads a group called the People's Vigilance Committee of Human Rights. "Have you ever seen a rich businessman or powerful politician languishing in jail for that long? No. They have money, power, and can turn the case on its head and roam free."

Most prisoners awaiting trial are poor minorities with little understanding of judicial procedure, Raghuvanshi said. "The police are under pressure to solve criminal cases, so they arrest the poor because they know they are not in a position to contest."

The jails and prisons of Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorest and most populous states, are some of country's most overcrowded, with an occupancy rate of 172 percent compared with the nationwide rate of 112 percent, according to jail administration official R.K. Dwivedi.

The National Human Rights Commission published a recent report detailing a brutal life for the poor behind bars.

"The poor under trials are subjected to all kinds of torture," said Chaman Lal, a special rapporteur for the commission who inspected two jails in Uttar Pradesh. Younger inmates say they're being sexually abused, he said. Many are also made "to act as servants for the rich prisoners and do all errands for them."

Lal recently discovered 17 impoverished prisoners in jail since 2001 for alleged involvement in a blood donation racket, though two doctors and five of their staff accused of being the ringleaders were freed within three months of their detention after paying bail. There have been no hearings in the case since the initial bail hearing, and it's unclear when the court might take up the case again.

Sometimes, a benefactor can help an inmate regain his freedom. Jai Ram Saber, a tribal villager and pharmacist from the neighboring state of Orissa, managed to get out after meeting and impressing a local strongman politician with his volleyball skills while the two were together behind bars.

Saber had spent years sleeping on the floor of a single barracks shared with 40 other inmates while awaiting trial for a 1989 murder. He vividly remembers the day in court when a judge granted him bail for 16,000 rupees.

"I was very happy, I cried with joy...I believed I would be a free man," he recalled, his voice quivering. Then, as the money didn't come, "I cursed my luck, wondering why my friends and relatives had dumped me."

His luck changed when the politician, Raghuraj Pratap Singh, was locked up in 2010 on weapons charges that were later dismissed. Upon his release, Singh paid Saber's bail as well. Now Saber is married, raising a son and working full time for Singh as his caretaker.

"Jai Ram was in jail for almost 20 years — 17 years more only because he was poor and did not have money to pay surety," said Singh, also widely known in Uttar Pradesh as "Raja Bhaiya" or "King Brother."

The state's jail minister, Balram Yadav, said the government is aware of such cases, noting one woman who spent 19 years behind bars being released finally in 2013 when her son managed to pull together her bail payment.

But "we cannot help," Yadav said. "There is a judicial process involved."