A taste of freedom at Tihar Jail

A taste of freedom at Tihar Jail

In January last year, when news trickled in that there had been an official nod to the long-contemplated proposal of making Tihar a semi-open prison, a spirit of festivity spread across South Asia's largest prison complex, located in the national capital.

Convicts now had the chance to be selected for the programme, which gave them an opportunity to work a full day day – although only within the sprawling complex  – and return to their sub-prison in the evening.

There was clapping when the then director general (prisons) Neeraj Kumar  announced, “We have received a copy of the approval order from the Delhi government a day ago (January 30, 2012), which will enable a convict to step out of the prison walls and work outside the jail to earn wages.” For convicts serving life imprisonment, this was also a chance to see the world outside the prison again.

Amit Saxena, 32, who is in Tihar Jail for the last seven years on a murder charge, reacted, “I hope this works out. This news gives me motivation to live another day.”

But a year has passed since then, and the enthusiasm has vanished as convicts still wait for their turn to be picked for the programme. 

The convicts now feel that the reality about the programme is not what they had imagined back then.

According to rules on semi-open jails, inmates are not allowed to work outside Tihar premises, spread across 400 acres and with nine different sub-prisons. They are only allowed to work outside their respective sub-jails but within the Tihar complex.

“In this semi-open jail system, the selected convicts are allowed to work on PWD projects, horticultural work or any other contractual work or at Tihar outlets, but within the premises of the jail complex,” says Tihar spokesperson Sunil Gupta.

 “They will not be allowed to go beyond the demarcated area within the premises, and have to maintain a high level of discipline and standards of behaviour. If they are found not abiding by the rules while working, they will be shifted back to the closed prison, and could be punished,” states the manual for semi-open jails.

Tihar houses some 12,000 prisoners against the sanctioned capacity of 6,250, and has 3,100 male convicts and 120 female convicts. Shockingly only two  were found eligible according to the rules, regulations and criteria laid out for the programme.

Several convicts felt that the selection procedure was tricky as only those who were sentenced to more than five years but less than 10, and whose remaining sentence was less than two years could be considered for selection. The convicts had to of good behaviour, and mentally and physically fit.

“The convicts must have maintained excellent conduct in the prison during the period of sentence. The convicts, if they have availed three furloughs, nothing adverse must have been noticed during their temporary release from the prison,” says Gupta.

 Because of the selection criteria being extremely strict, Tihar authorities sent a letter to lawmakers for some relaxation and amendment in the rules. And in January this year, convicts serving a jail sentence of up to 12 years and having less than two years of their term left have also been included.

The convicts who are serving life sentence and have undergone 12 years without any remission are also included, says Gupta.

Though there were some changes, prisoners who are considered dangerous or are serving sentences in serious offences such as dacoity, terrorism, kidnapping, smuggling, rape, those booked under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, foreigners and members of organised gangs were never included in the programme.

In addition, habitual offenders and prisoners with cases pending in court are also excluded.
Surprisingly, the programme does not include women prisoners. So the all-women sub-prison number six, which houses some 520 prisoners, including at least 120 convicts, was never considered for it.

However, the recent amendments in the criteria for eligibility have brought some relief to convicts. The ‘classification committee’ constituted by director general (prisons) Vimla Mehra under the chairmanship of deputy inspector general (prisons) G Sudhakar shortlisted some 200 male convicts last month for the programme. Hopefully, around 120 will be allotted work on the jail premises by February-end.

Though the semi-open jail system is a relief from the psychological pressure of confinement within the jail walls, the strict rules and limitations also make some prisoners apprehensive of what lies ahead.

One of the two convict so far on the programme – he works at the Tihar sales outlet – reveals at best only mixed feelings.

“I am happy for being selected in the first batch. It feels good to be away from closed walls, and there is a sense of freedom, “ says Devi Lal, who is near to completing his seven year-term for attempt to murder.

But at the same time he is scared that a mistake at this stage could delay his release. “All eyes are on me and everyone keeps tabs on my work,” he says. “If there is any mistake, I will be punished.”
Jail warden Jag Mohan thinks diiferently. “His work has brought back confidence in him. When he gets out of prison, he will have honesty and discipline as his big tools to get back in society,” he says.

But as a convict in sub-jail number one says, “Kuch bhi kar lijiye sahib, jail toh jail hai (whatever you do sir, a jail is a jail).”

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