Prison without bars: Why open prisons should be the norm?

By: | Updated: April 27, 2018 3:13 PM

Another good news is that open prisons in the country are witnessing a measured shift in their upkeep.

open jail, open prison, supreme court, centre, minimum security prisonPrisons are built to reform humans instead of just punishing them.

Adinath, an idealist jailor, scrimmages a prisoner who wants to kill him. However, he is vigilant enough to not use a lathi to neutralise his assailant. Instead, he reaches out for a bell to call for help. The two-minute-long shot is one of the most telling scenes of V Shantaram’s 1957 film Do Aankhen Barah Haath. The prisoner is one of the six inmates picked by Adinath (played by Shantaram himself) as part of a social experiment to reform them outside the confines of the prison.

The film drew inspiration from the ‘open prison’ experiment at Swatantrapur in the then princely state of Aundh, Maharashtra. It portrayed the rehabilitation of these prisoners through hard work and the kind guidance of the jailor, and not brute force. Shantaram’s movie was way ahead of its time, but it sowed the seeds of a concept, which, if implemented successfully, would have reaped rich fruits. Sadly, things did not turn out that way. It was only six decades later that the concept of open prisons (a jail with minimum security, functioning on the self-discipline of the inmates) finally got a new lease of life in the country. In December 2017, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to hold meetings with prison officials across India to set up more open prisons.

This directive was in response to a PIL filed by advocate Gaurav Agarwal on the poor condition of prisons in India. The court also asked the Centre to examine Rajasthan’s model of open prisons for a better understanding of the concept. This isn’t very surprising, considering the fact that of the 63 open prisons in India, Rajasthan has 29, the highest for an Indian state. A 2017 report by New Delhi-based independent researcher Smita Chakraburtty gives a descriptive account of the success of open prisons in the state. Terming the concept of closed prisons as “regressive”, Chakraburtty’s report, which was initiated in 2016 by the Rajasthan State Legal Services Authority and Rajasthan high court judge KS Jhaveri, suggests two open prisons for each of the 600-odd districts in the country. Speaking to Financial Express, Chakraburtty says, “Closed prisons are irrelevant and open prisons should be the norm. After visiting more than 50 closed prisons in Bihar and then the open prisons in Rajasthan, I found the closed system to be extremely inhuman and redundant.”

The Central Jail in New Delhi, popularly known as Tihar Jail, is one of the latest adopters of the concept of open prisons. While a semi-open prison was started in 2013, the open facility became functional only in 2016. “I came into the semi-open facility in September 2017,” says a 65-year-old inmate of the semi-open prison at Tihar Jail who did not want to be named. “Spending more than 12 years in confinement within the closed jail was traumatising. We couldn’t even meet our families properly. This facility is a lot better. We can breathe in open air at least.”

Prisons are built to reform humans instead of just punishing them. It’s this idea of social reform that guides the concept of an open prison. Ajay Kashyap, director general (prisons), Tihar Jail, hails the system of open and semi-open prisons, calling it a more “reformative measure”. As per him, such facilities help in the reintegration of convicts into society. “We follow the principle of ‘reform, rehabilitate and reintegrate’ here. The measures are to make sure that the transition of convicts, from prisoners to citizens of society, is smooth,” says Kashyap. However, with only 63 such facilities in the entire country, open prisons need more focus and attention from the government and prison authorities. Just creating more such prisons won’t help. Existing facilities should be upgraded as well. Also, the prolonged confinement of a convict in a closed prison before he is moved into an open facility needs to be addressed, among several other issues.

Changing mindsets

The term ‘open prison’ is paradoxical in nature. For common folk, it’s rather difficult to comprehend. One can’t blame a layperson for apprehensions about convicts after all. Glorified over the years as diabolical structures, mainly through mainstream cinema, prisons are considered to house vile creatures. Shackled behind bars, dressed in white with distinct black stripes and fed once a day in decrepit utensils, such creatures are depicted as unfit to go back into society. “How can a prison be open? Murderers, rapists, kidnappers… you find all sorts of criminals in jails. It’s better they stay behind bars. Society is safe that way. They shouldn’t be moved out, else they will commit such crimes again,” opines Neeraj Gupta, a 51-year-old New Delhi-based businessman, when asked about his views on open prisons.

Clearly, the mindset in society is to eliminate criminals, not crime. And this is where open prisons can catalyse a change. An open prison, if defined, has relatively less stringent rules as compared to controlled jails. They go by many names such as ‘minimum-security prison’, ‘open-air camps’, etc.
Chakraburtty rebuts the view held by Gupta and others like him. She believes that inmates in closed prisons have already spent so much time in jail that, if and when set free, they would hold their freedom very dear and, hence, wouldn’t indulge in any form of violence or miscreant activities outside. “They maintain a good track record inside the prison, so that they can be transferred to the open prison. They know that any form of deviation from the required behaviour would land them back behind bars,” she explains.

The road to an open prison, however, comes with its own riders. A minimum of five years inside the closed prison, good conduct and seniority in terms of the case are determinants of a convict’s fate. Explaining the eligibility criteria, Kashyap of Tihar Jail says, “The eligibility criteria is what has been laid under the notified rules. Certain category of people can be shifted to semi-open and open jails once they have met those criteria.”
But there is a catch. The shift is not a one-time, irrevocable kind of privilege, which, in turn, ensures that convicts maintain good behaviour lest they be sent back to the closed prison. “If they are found to be misusing the privilege or engaging in any misconduct, they can be sent back to the closed prison. It is a revocable privilege. In the past, one convict was sent back after he was found in possession of certain contraband items such as a liquor bottle and a mobile phone,” Kashyap says.

What’s heartening is that there has been only one such case of misconduct in the two facilities since they became functional at Tihar Jail. Even other open prisons in the country such as those in Sanganer (Rajasthan) and Swatantrapur (Maharashtra)—the oldest in the country—have witnessed only a handful of such incidents till date. “After spending a significant period behind bars, convicts have lost so much time that they are naturally reformed,” says a 56-year-old inmate of the semi-open prison at Tihar Jail, who spent over a decade in the closed prison. “At the end of the day, no prison or institution can reform me if I don’t want to change myself. The curtailment of freedom, the inability to see your children… this changes you as a human being. So whatever chance of repentance you are given, you don’t want to let it go,” says the inmate who did not want to be named.

Long-term panacea

A right turn from the main gate of the headquarters of Tihar Jail, a few hundred metres on a winding road, and one reaches the semi-open and open prison facility. Situated adjacent to the main prison periphery and separated by a small road leading to Jail No. 2, the multi-storeyed structures of the open and semi-open prisons stand opposite each other. A herbal garden sits in front of the open prison. “This land was all barren… full of rubble, unused concrete and other garbage. The inmates of the two facilities worked on this land and converted it into a garden. The herbs are used by the jail inmates,” says a prison official who did not want to be named.

Semi-open and open prisons function on the basic premise that everyone deserves a second chance. But what one does with that second chance is what defines the transformational ability of these places. Take, for instance, 46-year-old P Sukumaran, a former inmate of the open jail in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. He is set to donate one of his kidneys to a 21-year-old, Kerala-based patient called Princy Thankachan. Convicted for murder in 2007, he was transferred to the central jail in Kannur and then, on account of good conduct, transferred to an open jail in Thiruvananthapuram. “A life was lost at my hands. When I went to jail, my family was shattered. So if I can in any way prevent someone from dying, that family will be saved,” says Sukumaran, who considers himself a changed man after being released last July.

Kashyap of Tihar Jail believes society should do all it can to help these convicts lead more inclusive lives. “They might have made a mistake, for which they have been punished and put here. But it is also an important part of our job to help them pick themselves up, dust themselves off and find a space for themselves in society. For this, the ‘reform, rehabilitate and reintegrate’ mechanism is necessary,” he says. Meanwhile, Kiran Bedi, a former IPS officer and the current lieutenant governor of Puducherry, considers such facilities as ‘halfway homes’, owing to the extensive period of confinement for convicts. Speaking to Financial Express, she says, “Semi-open and open prisons have a great psychological impact on convicts, as these prepare them for final relief (release from jail). It’s a part of the policies to bring about reforms. While such a facility allows convicts to meet and interact with their families, it also prepares the families and society to accept them when they move out. This facilitates social reintegration.”

Besides humanitarian concerns, semi-open and open prisons also truncate the financial burden on the exchequer. A comparison in the 2017 report prepared by Chakraburtty reveals Rajasthan’s Jaipur Central Jail to be 78 times more expensive per annum than Sanganer Open Prison in the state. Analysing the details, one finds the latter to cost only Rs 24 lakh per annum as against the Rs 18-crore burden created on the treasury by the central jail in Jaipur. “Why do we need such expensive structures? The country is grappling with so many sectors. The money spent on closed prisons can be used elsewhere… to fund primary education, healthcare, etc,” says Chakraburtty in her report.

But what are the major costs incurred by prisons? The elementary answer lies in the staff deployed for maintenance and security, and the monetary resources spent on them. Elucidating the cost-effectiveness of semi-open and open prisons, Tihar Jail’s Kashyap says lesser number of guards are required for manning such facilities, leading to the prevention of overcrowding. “In an open prison, we don’t have that level of deployment. There is no court, mulaqat, deori, and such structures. If you have these security structures, you need to man them. That uses a lot of manpower and money,” he says.

Overcrowding, as Kashyap points out, is a big concern in the Indian prison system. As per the Prison Statistics India 2015 report by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India’s prisons are grossly overcrowded, with an occupancy ratio of 14% more than the capacity. The report submitted by Chakraburtty paints an even more abysmal picture. Her report finds several prisons in the country to be overcrowded by around 150%. The data is alarming: eight jails in Assam, 17 in Chhattisgarh, three in Jharkhand, seven in Karnataka, 21 in Kerala, five in Madhya Pradesh, 16 in Maharashtra, 21 in Rajasthan, 47 in UP and 12 in Delhi have reported overcrowding. “When I visited the closed prisons, I could see the inhuman conditions borne out of overcrowding. Open prisons not only reduce overcrowding, but also make quality of life much better. They solve multiple problems,” says Chakraburtty.

Widening the ambit

Of the 73 inmates—68 in the semi-open prison and five in the open prison—at Tihar Jail, the number of women convicts is zero. The scenario, in fact, has seen no change since the facilities first became functional. This prompted the Supreme Court last year to question the Delhi government, lieutenant governor and director general of prisons as to why the benefits of these facilities haven’t been extended to female inmates. “Why are you denying this to women prisoners? This is very bad. What you are doing is a stereotypical approach. People should have an option… why should you discriminate?” a bench of Gita Mittal and C Hari Shankar had said in September. It was only in December 2017 that the Delhi government assured the SC of extending the facilities to women convicts as well. “We have already written to the Delhi government for permission. It was in the pipeline and the SC’s directive came right in the nick of time. An official notification should come soon,” clarifies Kashyap.

A closer look at some of the available literature on open prisons, however, shows that the trend is not just Delhi-centric. As per NCRB data of 2015, only four such prisons—Yerawada Open Jail (Maharashtra), Women’s Open Prison in Trivandrum (Kerala) and the Durgapura and Sanganer Open Camps in Rajasthan—have opened their doors for women inmates. “An open prison is for everyone regardless of gender. Why can’t women live in open prisons? The general psyche of the patriarchal set-up has found its way inside prisons as well,” laments Chakraburtty. Hopefully, with the SC’s directive, things will change for the better.

Another good news is that open prisons in the country are witnessing a measured shift in their upkeep. The Swatantrapur Open Colony, Atpadi, Sangli district, Maharashtra, for instance, has got a shot in the arm from the state government. Construction of new quarters for housing inmates—at the cost of Rs 2.2 crore—has been sanctioned. Until now, the lack of habitable quarters allowed only three prisoners and their families to live there, even though the official inmate capacity is 28. “Construction work has started and is expected to be completed soon. We have also sent a proposal to the state, asking for new inmates once the facility has been refurbished,” says Bhushan Kumar Upadhyaya, additional director general of police (prisons), Swatantrapur Open Colony.

Despite all these efforts, the policy of not extending the facility to undertrials has been a much-debated issue. The major opposition is driven by the sentiment that undertrials would escape if kept in such a facility. Chakraburtty and other prison officials, however, think otherwise. “When the Sanganer Open Prison was started in 1954, it was on a pilot basis. It was an experiment based on trust. The official prison rules were codified in 1972, almost 18 years later. Only when the experiment was seen giving results was it expanded. A similar approach can be adopted for undertrials. We can start on a small basis, see how it functions and then decide,” says Chakraburtty. Kashyap agrees: “It would be a good move to bring undertrials under the ambit. This would give them a chance to redeem themselves,” he says.

Sanganer: Beacon of hope

Mushtaq Khan points towards his single-storeyed pucca house (numbered 9/347) whitewashed in white. After spending over nine years behind bars on the charge of murder, 59-year-old Khan finally has a permanent address courtesy Sanganer Open Prison. A father of five—four daughters and one son—Khan has been living here with his wife since 2014. “I was sent here on medical conditions. My heart is 80% damaged. Things have changed a lot in the past three years. I can meet my family without restrictions, my son and daughters come to see me. I have some more time left here. Then I can go back home in Ajmer,” says Khan, who is accompanied by his youngest daughter Fiza.

Started in 1954, the open prison is the largest in the country and houses about 300 inmates with their families. Inmates can move out for 12 hours—6 am to 6 pm in summers and 7 am to 7 pm in winters. The facility does not look like a prison at all. In fact, it’s more of a village with a temple and school on its premises. The inmates undertake jobs as per their capabilities—while some ride a rickety bicycle to work, others have SUVs parked outside their houses. Most of the residences, though, are single-storeyed. The concept of self-discipline and independent living forms the core here. Khan, for instance, earns from the houses he has leased out in Ajmer. “I earn Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000 every month. That is enough for us. Lodging, electricity, water, etc, is all taken care of. We only need money for food. I am content and happy here. The officials, too, are very supportive,” says Khan.

For 32-year-old Kamal Chand, earning a livelihood is onerous, but he doesn’t mind undertaking the hardships as long as he can breathe in open air and live a respectable life. Chand today holds his freedom very dear and tries to stay away from any scuffle or arguments. “I have been inside jail since 2007. I know how it feels inside—it’s stifling. The years inside jail have left a mark on me. I am trying to wash it off, so I avoid any confrontations or arguments,” says Chand, as he smothers a layer of cement for a house he is constructing. Hailing from Alwar, he lives with his mother here. Interestingly, the house he is constructing belongs to another inmate. He gets paid Rs 500 a day. “We make sure they get their wages on time. Jobs fluctuate in the year. Some of them who go out to work have a regular income. For others, it is a bit difficult,” says Sat Narayan, in-charge, Sanganer Open Prison.

Clearly, things are not that rosy. The 70-year-old structure of the prison looks withered. Crumbling walls, wild vegetation, lack of proper sewage have tainted the image of this prison. Thoroughfares on two sides of the facility present a serious complication for prison officials. Inmates move in and out of the premises through these thoroughfares as night falls. Narayan is weary of this problem. “One side has an industrial set-up, while the other has a printing factory. At times, inmates move out in the night. They do come back, but it is not right for them to leave the premises,” he says, pointing towards the heap of mud laid down to block the thoroughfare.

With the coming in of Bhupendra Singh, the new additional director general (prisons), things might get better though. “I have just taken charge. The structure has become very old. Thoroughfares and hygiene are big problems. I intend to bring about changes in the infrastructure. A plan has been made and consultants are working on it. Since the prison is very big, we need to make changes one day at a time,” he says.
He is right. Transformation in the lives of convicts can only be brought one day at a time.

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