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Anything beyond the Madurai Fort was considered city suburbs in the 1840s. The British-era collector for Madurai city, John Blackburne demolished the massive fort walls and laid four Veli Veedhis (outer streets) in 1841. When Madurai Junction was inaugurated at West Veli Street in 1859, city residents protested that it was too far from the heart of the city. So when the British constructed the present day prison at Karimedu in 1865, the Central Prison was indeed in the then suburbs of Madurai.

Karimedu, as the name suggests, was a mound of coal stored for the steam locomotives operating from Madurai Junction. And the prison was constructed on a 33-acre campus near the mound.

Some 145 years later, the Madurai Prison is again going beyond city limits. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin announced recently that the Central Prison at Madurai will be moved well beyond city limits. The authorities are still looking for a suitable place, says Madurai Prison DIG Palani. “The process has started,” he says.

Roses of various colors in Madurai Prison cultivated by the prisoners. The inmates here are engaged in various activities, including running a plant nursery.

The state government is planning to turn this 33-acre area into a green corridor for the city. A lung space for the city’s concrete jungle, it will be a hangout spot.

Back in time, there was a prison inside Madurai city near Meenakshi Temple. It was functioning near the Rani Mangammal palace that was inadvertently destroyed in 2013. The prison was gone a few years before the palace. The Nayak kings used the building to lock up rebels. Mangammal, the queen regent of Madurai Nayak kingdom from 1689 – 1704, ended up spending her final days in that prison.

Archeologist C Santhalingam says that the early rulers did not really institutionalize a prison system. Justice was served locally and the prisoners who ended up in the capital were quickly discarded with punishments ranging from maiming to death. In cases where brahmins were involved, the lands donated by the kings were confiscated and they were exiled. “There are literary mentions about a prison but a proper prison mechanism was not much in place,” he said.

The state government is planning to turn this 33 acres area into a green corridor for the city. A lung space for the city’s concrete jungle, it will be a hangout spot.

When the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) established the Madura Mission in 1606, the missionaries apparently took note of the pitiable condition of the prisoners in Madurai prison. Historians like Venkataraman recalled some years ago that the Shenbaganoor archives in Kodaikanal, the Jesuit house in Kodai hills, talk about Jesuit priests appealing to Nayak kings to allow them to provide food and water to prisoners.

In the twilight years of the Nayak kingdom, the British East India Company was flexing its muscles in southern Tamil Nadu. The Madurai Nayak dynasty formally ended in 1736 when the last queen Meenakshi committed suicide after being let down by Chanda Sahib, one of the contenders for the Carnatic throne. The French were routed in the Third Carnatic War and the British took control of the region. Madurai fell into the hands of the British in the late 1750s.

Madurai Collectorate was established with the first British collector McLeod taking charge on Sept. 6, 1790. The administration was headquartered at the  Madurai Fort constructed by Viswanatha Nayak in 1559. Like Nayak kings, the British used the old prison near Mangammal Palace to lock up political prisoners.

Inmates doing yoga at the prison. The official capacity of Madurai Central Prison is 1,252 inmates.

With most of India under their control, the British decided to set up an integrated administration. Lord Macaulay initiated prison reforms in 1835. The Indian Penal Code was enacted in Oct. 6, 1860. Madras Penitentiary was constructed in 1837. Across Madras Presidency, prisons were constructed. Salem prison was constructed in 1862. Madurai, Tiruchirapalli, and Cuddalore prisons were constructed in 1865.

The official capacity of Madurai Central Prison is 1,252 inmates. The British administration had a tough time dealing with the rebellious Mukkulathor community, subsequently branding them under the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. The Central Prison turned out to be a melting pot in this struggle and the community over the course of time ended up associating themselves with the prison.

Historians like Venkataraman recalled some years ago that Shenbaganoor archives in Kodaikanal, the Jesuit house in Kodai hills, talk about Jesuit priests appealing to Nayak kings to allow them to provide food and water to prisoners.

Madurai was also closely associated with trade unionism and the Central Prison was the place where many trade unionists were locked up. The Madura Mills were established by Andrew and Frank (A & F) Harvey brothers in 1889. The city turned into a textile hub over the decades. Trade unionism and communism thrived in Madurai.

Prominent communist leaders starting from K T K Thangamani, P Ramamoorthy, K P Janaki, Sankariah were locked up in Madurai Central Prison. Former CPM MLA, Nanmaran, known for his quick wit, in a function held at Madurai Central Prison some years ago remarked that they were keen that the prison should offer good facilities because they were prone to ‘visit’ the premises often.

A meat stall run by the inmates of Madurai Central Prison gets a lot of customers.

Madurai Central Prison has seen many reforms in the last decade. The prison authorities have started various ventures for the prisoners. Prisoners run freedom bazaars, meat shop, laundry, nursery, mushroom cultivation and other industrial activities inside the prison. The Central Prison that is going to come up on the city outskirts is likely to have more such activities.

Prisoners undertake various activities at Madurai Prison. Among them are mushroom cultivation and running a prison bazaar.

History professor and lawyer Solomon Bernard Shaw says the rulers of Madurai should have had some code and prison system too. But it was the British who formalized it through the Indian Prisons Act in 1894. “However, the prison set up remained repressive and inhuman post-independence too. Things are changing for good of late in the prison system. Let’s hope that it evolves into a more sober system as it moves to the suburbs,” he added.


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