Freedom from behind bars

Freedom from behind bars

The rate of recidivism is very less or negligible among prisoners staying in an open prison, writes Kavitha Yarlagadda

Sanganer open prison

The one thing that we miss inside a conventional prison is colour. This colourless existence starts with one’s clothes — one has to wear white. I didn’t realise but when I entered the open prison, there was something that said ‘Grow flowers,’ and I planted some marigolds outside my home in the Sanganer open prison which instantly added colour to my otherwise colourless life, said Pooja Chhabra a convict at Sanganer open prison. Rajasthan is a role model to all the open prisons of India, with the major chunk of 42 open prisons operating from the state and Maharashtra following with 11 open prisons out of the total number of 74 open prisons in India.

The open prisons of India are giving an opportunity to prisoners to live with dignity, helping them regain their self-esteem, and regain the trust of their family members and the authorities. Open prisons helped them in building their confidence and they work hard and save money, here they were not just identified by a number but had a name and self-respect. The open prison model was first started in 1953 in Uttar Pradesh for the construction of a dam. In 1955 prisoners were allowed to stay with their families and work on farms. And yet many of us are not even aware that such a system known as open prisons existed in India.

This model is such a beautiful way of reforming convicts that it needs to get more attention. The Supreme Court’s ruling on December 12, 2017, gives some hope to the future of open prisons. The Supreme Court passed a ruling that Rajasthan’s open prisons model must be followed everywhere.

Run and managed by the state government, inmates of an open prison are allowed to work and commute within the city limits for 12 hours a day. It’s mandatory that they are present for the daily roll call at the end of the day. Prison Aid and Action Research (PAAR), an NGO, was started by Smita Chakraborty in 2018 after more than a decade of working with prisoners. PAAR works on prison reforms and operating prisons in more humane conditions. The NGO is working hard to initiate and recommend the concept of open prisons all over India where they become the new normal. Open prisons require 92% lesser staff, while in a closed prison the expenses go up to seven to Rs 10,000 a month per prisoner apart from the fact that they stay in inhuman conditions. Cost wise and humanity wise too, open prisons make more sense. The eligibility of a prisoner to be considered for an open prison is that he serves one-third of his sentence in a closed prison before going to an open prison. Smita feels that the existing closed prison system is like keeping a man in a cage, wherein people experience anxiety and uncertainty. PAAR advocates the open prison system and believes in the tagline ‘no more caging humans’. The popular Tihar Jail is yet to warm up to the idea of this system, it has only ten people in their open prison, which is a temporary structure created in the existing prison, and the prisoners don’t live with their families.

Parmeshwar served in the Indian Army for 25 years, after just one untoward incident, he was court-martialled by the Army court. That was when he landed in jail, “Zindagi ka chapter jaisay close ho gaya ho” (It was like life’s chapter had closed). The closed prison was a curse and he was trapped within walls, isolated from family and friends. His life changed after going to the open prison. To earn a livelihood, he rented a grocery shop outside the prison walls. And the remarkable thing was that most of his regular customers were outsiders. He is grateful for the second chance on his path to transformation.

Geeta was imprisoned and sent to Jaipur Central Jail for long. She used to teach uneducated convicts and helped them learn to sign their names. The result of this good conduct got her transferred to the Sanganer open prison much earlier than scheduled. The open prison proved to be the turning point of her life, she found work as a nurse in a hospital, began to study in her free time and even got married for the second time to a person from outside. 

PAAR has started a social media initiative this year with their Facebook and Instagram pages called ‘Open Prison Voices’ to highlight the stories of people staying in open prisons. These posts have helped in making a positive difference to the prisoners by way of positive comments and likes. This system of open prisons or prisons without bars works on a trust-based model and goes way beyond being human. This model helps the convicts in mending their ways and being responsible for their daily survival which helps them in transforming their lives in a more humane manner. And the stigma attached to the label of a convict slowly fades away as they live a life of dignity with hard work.