"It is a jail, isn't it? Have you ever heard that a person lived happily in a jail?"
This was how Sifat (not his real name) retorted while sharing the experience of his stay at one of the three child development centres in the country.
The 15-year-old was one of several teenagers The Daily Star talked to, with the permission of their parents, in the aftermath of the August 13 killing of three boys following torture by staff and senior inmates at the Child Development Centre in Jashore.
The Children Act, 1974 (and the subsequent Children Act, 2013) called for child development centres to be set up for those under the age of 18 who are under trial or ordered to be detained in the judicial proceedings or sent by the guardians.
It is not just torture which came to the limelight last month but also the poor living conditions and unchecked abusive behaviour.
Overcrowding is a major issue in the two centres for boys -- the capacity of the Tongi centre is 300 but at present it has 545 inmates. There is one psychiatric case worker and one social case worker to provide counselling services for these 545 children.
The Jashore centre houses around 300 boys against the capacity of 150.
"Our senior inmates were our leaders and we had to obey them strictly. The slightest mistake -- for example, failing to greet them would result in punishments like 100-200 sit-ups or standing on one leg for an hour," said Sifat, who was in the Tongi centre for four months last year.
"Once, I had to do 200 sit-ups for a mistake. My leg got swollen and I could not walk properly for several days," said the boy, whose parents said he was wrongly implicated in a murder.
Sifat added the children at the centre were allowed to go outside only for assigned tasks like gardening or cleaning and could play for 30 minutes. Only senior inmates enjoyed the luxury of watching TV.
The experience of 13-year-old Abir (not his real name), who was in the same centre for around six months in 2019 for his alleged involvement in a theft, was no better.
He said around 20 of his fellow inmates were squeezed in a room, where they all slept crowded on the floor. This led to frequent illnesses among them, he said, including diarrhoea, flu, and skin diseases.
"But there was no doctor."
Despite suffering from diarrhoea, he was not spared from cleaning the toilets on his floor for seven days at a stretch as "punishment" from senior inmates.
"The superintendent and other officers used to visit us but they mostly talked to the senior inmates, never with us," he added.
Then there are clashes within inmates and between inmates and staff, which speak of a culture of bullying and torture that developed in these centres. The authorities did little to check this, said child rights activists.
The centres also lack professionals capable of handling these children who are especially vulnerable and need greater care, they added.
These correspondents found there is no registered doctor or child psychologist in any of these centres.
While the situation at the girls' centre at Konabari in Gazipur is slightly better in terms of accommodation -- with 80 in 154 available seats -- there is no therapist or special education expert there though it houses eight girls with special needs.
The Daily Star contacted three former inmates of the Konabari centre but all of them declined to speak to these correspondents for the fear of social stigma and harassment.
The only one of their mothers who agreed to talk said, "My daughter was a good student. She got GPA-5 in the PEC exam. But after spending five months in there, she could not continue her studies anymore."
She also became severely malnourished, said the weeping mother.
"We tried to send her to school but her teachers and classmates used to harass her for having been in jail. I am afraid that nobody will want to marry her. She is now looking for a job."
Here comes the issue of rehabilitating these children and experts found such initiatives insufficient.
At the centres, male children can take technical courses such as automobile repairing, wood carving, electrical works, tailoring and computer operating in the centres.
Female children can learn embroidery and computer operating.
However, the number of trainees is very low. Only 71 out of 545 male inmates in Tongi and 22 out of 80 female inmates are currently studying courses.
Contacted, both superintendents of Tongi and Konabari centres denied allegations of abuse and lack of care and said the children were living in quite good conditions, declining to comment further.
Anworul Karim, deputy director of the District Social Services Office, Gazipur, said, "The living condition in these centres is much better than before. We are closely monitoring its operations."
The children at the Tongi and Konabari centres are sent to a nearby hospital for treatment, if needed, he added.
"We haven't received any allegations from the inmates or their relatives. After the tragedy in Jashore, we have beefed up security and increased our monitoring."
When asked what measures have been taken to improve conditions in Children Development Centre in Jashore, Ashit Saha, deputy director of District Social Services Office, said, "We have strengthened our monitoring system. We have requested for additional security guards (Ansar members) and we will get that soon."
Replying to the question how the monitoring system has been improved there, he said, "We have alerted the centre staff and keeping close watch on their activities."
When asked what measures have been taken to stop the reported gang culture among the inmates which led to that brutal murder, he said, "There was and is no gang culture among the inmates. That incident was a mistake and we are doing our best to ensure that our children get best services in the centre."
Abdus Shahid Mahmood, member secretary of the Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum, said the brutal killing of three teenagers at the Jashore centre was the inevitable outcome of a common culture of horrific abuse of children in these centres.
Shahid points to the incidents over the years -- a girl killed herself in the Konabari centre in 2013, boys at the Tongi centre self-harmed in protest of abusive treatment by the staff in 2014, and several boys were tortured by their seniors at the same centre in 2016.
"Due to the abusive gang culture and lack of rehabilitation efforts in these centres, children who are released often get involved in more serious criminal activities outside," he added.
Barrister Abdul Halim, chairman of Children's Charity Bangladesh Foundation, said, "These centres are run by non-cadre officials of the social services department who are not trained enough to manage a sensitive facility like these.
"They are also monitored and supervised by officials of the same department and some bureaucrats who do this as additional duty," he added, emphasising the lack of multidisciplinary oversight.
Halim said a monitoring committee comprised of government officials, child rights activists, lawyers, child health specialists, child psychologists and educators has to be formed to ensure transparency in these centres' operations.
Barrister Shanjid Siddique, who represents the three teenage victims of Jashore centre and their guardians, said the government should overhaul the management system of these development centres immediately and align it with the principles laid down in the Children Act, 2013.