Saturday, March 2, 2013

Stories of courage: Prison & Prisoners

The following is a guest post by Ram Narayan, where he shares his experience on working with prisoners.

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What did the word “prison” in the title bring to your mind? Going by what our movies have you believe, is it images of moustachioed, testosterone-charged men acting on a virtual carte blanche against cowering, stripped prisoners, who may be engaged in arduous labour? A bottomless abyss which scars you for life, from which there is no coming back, or a hope for a second shot at a dignified life? (I got my impressions more from Nelson Mandela’s descriptions in A Long Walk To Freedom, but the import is the same!)

Well, it’s not as bad as it looks, it’s worse. India had 3,26,519 prisoners in 1,140 prisons, as of 2011 (that’s 39.8% over capacity) and some of the conditions could make Mandela’s Robben Island cell look like a palace! What was surprising though was, only around 3.5% are females (even in largely misogynist settings, this big a skew is a surprise!). With society’s attitudes to prison and victims, a jail sentence is a death sentence. Many lose valuable years in the prime of their earning capacity thereby perpetuating further hardship on the rest of their family and little children, not to mention the attitudes towards them after release (if at all!). The less said about female prisoners and their post-release reintegration into society the better.

As part of the social club Make A Difference Foundation of my college IMT, Ghaziabad we realised we could attempt a significant change in the lives of these women prisoners. Our obvious port of call was Dasna Jail, Ghaziabad, the second largest in Northern India. Keeping with our intent of sustainability, we decided to follow up last year’s project on candles with solar lanterns this year. This was made possible due to help from the NGO, All India Womens Conference and Urja Unlimited who will provide the training to 18 selected inmates.

Selecting the inmates for the training was one of the many significant and revealing experiences. Trawling through list after list of inmates threw up many a sidelight. Brainwashed as we are on media/movie reinforced stereotypes of the impoverished school dropout youngster who goes astray and takes to crime, this was an eye opener. Tucked away among the many names was that of Sarita, a bank manager. She was one of the rare women who did the hard yards and was able to come up, braving a patriarchal system to achieve enough progress in her life to come up to the level of a bank manager, and here she was, cooling her heels in jail for a needless indiscretion driven by greed. There were also countless others whose background was eye-popping. What was surprising was the number of white collar crimes – forgery, cheating, multi-million rupee stamp-paper underwriting and so on. This pointed to relatively high levels of education and advancement that was frittered away so needlessly. Among them, were a few older women who were doing time for dowry related assault and murder, again showing that their own educational advancement even as women was wasted!
Taking in all this while looking to select relatively younger women with about a year to go for release, as a management student I couldn’t help notice the huge human resource and economic potential being wasted! The typical Indian bureaucratic sentiment is to treat them as less than worthy of human dignity, which is why there is very little by way of structured government initiatives towards reintegration with only notable exceptions like Kiran Bedi’s at Tihar, for which she is even reported to have been victimised by higher-ups. What on earth is the purpose of a jail, if not corrective action aimed at giving a new life?! The kind of degrading manual labour including scavenging that prisoners in India are largely subjected to, points to an societal acceptance of their branding as less than deserving of basic human dignity. This does nothing towards their rehabilitation, and only reinforces those very feelings of hatred that made them criminals in the first place. Well-meaning external initiatives by NGOs concerned die a slow death because of the cynicism, disinterest and ulterior motives of officers involved. The constant mental degradation prisoners face also reinforces their cynicism in the system which means they have a deep distrust of any such initiative.

The women, as would be expected, form the neglected section of the jail system, owing both to their lower numbers and to societal attitudes. The surest way to ward off their cynicism is to give them the confidence that they can stand on their own feet, should they need it, once they are out. Most of the women we were introduced to by a senior inmate, were either wary of the “strangers” or just plain disinterested. If they used their education to acquire a skill they could use while in jail, either in practice as income generating activity, or by training fellow inmates, their life would acquire greater meaning. Initiatives like the term-rebate-for-book-reviews scheme in Brazil that concentrate on using prison life constructively show prisons for what it should be – corrective rather than restraining centres. This is where our initiative aims at not only training them to manufacture the solar lanterns, but also to put in place a mechanism for them training other inmates so that the scheme continues in perpetuity.

What left the biggest impression on me was interacting with some of them. Many of them in their orange kurta-pyjamas were milling about as attenders, cleaners, cooks and general oddhands. Casual conversation with them seemed hardly different from those with the blue-collar employees of my own college, which was unnerving considering their dark pasts as murderers, robbers, and what not. While the casual work within the prison, (mainly for the senior prisoners with longer sentences) helps to beat daily drudgery and mental stagnation while also helping them learn new skills, it also negates the need for externally sourced employment for all this. A common criminal from underprivileged circumstances who takes up the carpentry, electric or cooking work in jail has some form of dignified employment to look forward to either upon release or as daily occupation within premises while in jail, while those with sufficient education, and who are in for white collar crimes do not comparatively lack in job-related skills.

All in all this experience was a lesson in humanly possibility. Tanya, one of the “sure-fits” for the training was a soft-spoken, pleasant lady who I found endearingly shy. She seemed pretty amiable, and looking forward to the training. It was astounding to learn that hid a sordid past for this former BPO employee who is serving time for a double murder. Manish has an entire line of paintings on various mythological themes on display there, that make you wonder at the truly meticulous effort that has gone into it, in addition to the skill. And when one learns that the same hands that served such jaw-droppingly awesome ginger chai, have strangled two women, one only has one pained question left at all the disused skills, “why, oh why?”!

But the biggest takeaway from it all? Till now, I was the most vocal supporter you could ever find, of the death-penalty in principle. Sashakt made me rethink. That experience, of meeting people there, hearing of their stories, and looking at the simply unbelievable potential for dignified rehabilitation, is a learning that no classroom lecture by any distinguished professor can ever give.

(Names have been changed to protect certain identities)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post, and imagine what these many inmates could do, to the future of solar in India. At Urja Unlimited we are working on similar large scale programs, to help create a green workforce that can help fill the demand supply gap. The train the trainer program can do wonders in filling this gap. IMportantly, many of these people when released, shall go to their villages, where if they practice what they have been taught, they may be able to help others, and hence earn respect and livelihood !

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