Convicts taste freedom in Bilaspur jail

But this small jail in hill riverside town of Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh is a good exception to what is perhaps the norm. It follows a rare drill each day to reform prisoners.

Here, murder convicts are freed’ every morning from jail and moved to nearby markets where they work in shops and offices. This 9 to 5 arrangement lets convicts reintegrate with the society and earn a living.  Some of these convicts also own shops in the market. 

If their work delays them, inmates also get extra time to stay out. There are no teams of gun-totting policemen or even the watchful eyes of CCTV cameras. It’s the faith reposed by jail authorities in these inmates that has set this experiment on a smooth sail, albeit security drills are carried out with utmost precision. No wonder, the Bilaspur jail, which houses 78 inmates convicted of murder,  now goes by its epithet, ’Open Jail’.

Imagine: A murder-convict hard-selling garments to customers, another packing grocery stuffs. But in the Tibetan market in Bilaspur, these scenes do not raise any eyebrow. The jail authorities say some of these inmates even work in private firms and factories.

Rattan Singh, a murder convict said he has found a job as clerk in the market and is enjoying his work thoroughly, without which he would have been frustrated cooling his heels inside the lock-up.  

Every morning, Singh and his fellow inmates, escorted by a few policemen, walk outside the secure bounds of the walled jail to work and return by dusk. Singh is also pursing higher studies. A father-son duo, requesting anonymity said they have managed to own shops in the market, wh­ich will eventually help them rehabilitate, once they are out of jail.  There has been no case of convicts fleeing so far.

But not every inmate qualifies for the out door privilege. Pick-pocketers, rapists, thieves, burglars are usually kept inside. “A few are murderers, who have committed the crime in the heat of the moment. They have no past criminal record and have proven good conduct inside jail. They qualify for the job, although it’s the discretion of the jail authorities that matters in the end,” an official said. Bilaspur Open Jail was set up in 1960 with an objective to reform prisons.

Convicted for murder, Chander Mohan and Inder Singh, serving a life term, say they work as helps in shops and serve customers. They feel they are the lucky ones to have been given the opportunity to reintegrate with the society. Equally laudable are the shopkeepers, who have consented to employ convicts without which the experiment would have fallen flat.

A shopkeeper, who did not wish to be named said, it’s the craving to come out of lock-ups each day that goads these inmates to perform better and without any aggression or undesirable behavior.

“Our customers don’t even know who they are and from where they come,” he said. Sundays are off days for them. The facility has another great advantage. Families and children of convicts can meet them every day in markets.

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