A second chance in life for prisoners

Delhi jails are inculcating new thinking and rebuilding the lives of inmates

Among the Delhi Street Art group members is 36-year-old Virender* who chiselled his painting skills behind bars. His artworks can be seen at the Pacific Mall and Madhuban Chowk among other places.

Serving a life sentence in a kidnapping for ransom case, he was released from Mandoli jail in April 2020,on account of good conduct. Virender has now moulded himself as a professional mural and graffiti painter.

"Painting was my childhood passion and I was fortunate to get supportive teachers and prison staff who helped me change my outlook to life and build a career," he told The Hindu, while recollecting his first day when he made his way to the barracks from the prison gates. "I was petrified about spending the rest of my life there turning into an emotional wreck or indulging in criminal activities," he said.

With city prisons under the scanner for custodial deaths and inmate infighting to extortion rackets and other petty crimes, various corrective measures to reform undertrials and convicts is a path forward for criminal justice. Several rehabilitative initiatives, including educational and vocational skill training programmes, meant to constructively engage the inmates in Delhi prisons have helped individuals like Virender and others to change their lives.

Neeraj* (22), a rape accused on bail, works as a cashier in a city mall now, thanks to the computer course he did at Tihar. “I was taught tally and data entry and it has helped me tremendously," said Neeraj, who juggles his job and studies at Delhi University.

For 24-year-old Shankar*, a murder accused out on bail, earns from repairing computers, mobiles and laptops. "I used to be frightened during my early days of incarceration, not knowing what lay ahead. But the opportunity to repair small appliances during two years of imprisonment and the crash course in computers helped me to polish my skills," he said.

*Amit Kumar,33, fulfilled his dream of becoming a professional painter after entering the Tihar jail for a dowry death case in 2017. Kumar was working with a manufacturing company before his imprisonment and is out on interim bail from June last year due to COVID-19. “Everyone thinks we are good for nothing, but reform programmes, right guidance and support encourage us to begin life afresh,” he said.

“When I saw the paintings made by other inmates, I felt I could do the same and enrolled myself for the course, " said Kumar, who is back working in the same company and also sells his paintings at various exhibitions for additional income.

“When I first entered jail in 2016, I thought violence and torture will finish me. But social workers and prison staff motivated me to do nukkad natak. We were given on-the-spot themes and asked to perform in different wards," said Geeta, 50, a single mother who worked as a school teacher before she was arrested for a murder case.

"I also attended computer software classes and worked in the jail’s administrative department earning Rs.80 as daily wage," she added. Geeta now takes home tuitions and will have to return to the jail once her interim bail ends. "But I will not rue anymore," she said.

From painting, tailoring, baking to manufacturing candles, incense sticks, masks, and sanitisers, the 18,000 inmates across the three prisons, hone their skills with training from NGO and jail staff. They also get daily wage employment for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled work. Products made by them are either used internally within the jails or sold at various exhibitions, including the annual Trade Fair at Pragati Maidan.

Sunil Gupta, former law officer at Tihar, said the rehabilitation programmes make the inmates realise the dignity of labour and have a happy impact on them. "The jails now work beyond the safe custody of prisoners to their reformation and rehabilitation. It helps to reduce the recidivism rate — the tendency of a convict to commit another crime after being released," he said. "Judges also develop a positive outlook towards them,"’ he added.

Gupta cited a rape accused from his tenure who cracked the IAS exam from inside the jail and is now posted as a Collector in U.P. “Many prisoners bag respectable jobs after coming out of jail. Many enter as illiterates and go out with UG degrees," he said.

Monica Dhawan, Director of India Vision Foundation, a prison reforms group, said most inmates tend to be aggressive at first but once they are enrolled in vocational activities through outreach efforts of NGOs like hers, they become keen learners and want to do something worthwhile to reintegrate themselves into the society. "We provide sewing machines to the women prisoners who are released and they earn anywhere between Rs.3,000 to Rs.7,000 a month," she said.

Director General (Prisons) Sandeep Goel said the prisons at Tihar, Mandoli and Rohini have an adequate number of educational and vocational activities running now. "But the expansion of initiatives is a work in progress. It is our aim to wean off the prisoners from their earlier lives and train them to get good jobs," he said.

(*Names changed to protect the identity of the individuals)

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