Reforming jail inmates: Bengal shows the way

Reforming jail inmates: Bengal shows the way

February 8, 2014

Prison reform is a major movement today all over India. The enactment of a progressive and modern prison law – The West Bengal Correctional Services Act – has ushered in a paradigm shift from the age-old theory of retribution towards the well-thought out new philosophy of correctional approach for the moral reformation and correction of inmates. The idea is to facilitate their reintegration with mainstream society on release through education, be it vocational, mainstream or cultural.

The gradual transformation of prison administration in line with the modern correctional philosophy of rehabilitation of jail inmates is resulting in a wholesome and healthy environment in the jails, or correctional homes as they are called now. This is being achieved by providing a healthy ambience and modern facilities to the inmates for their moral education, recreation and vocational training. Steps are also taken to bring about an attitudinal change in the mindset of the prison staff.

With this aim in view, the West Bengal Correctional Services has been organising state-level dialogues with NGOs and social organisations since 2006. The event has become an annual feature. Through these dialogues, various activities for the development and well-being of jail inmates are planned, in which the NGOs play a major role. The NGOs act as the interface with the community, into which the inmates’ integration is being sought on release. After all, correctional homes still remain by and large closed organisations (security is a major issue to be considered as to how open a correctional home can be) and so, the active participations of community interfaces like NGOs is in the interest of the community itself, besides of course the inmates and the correctional services.

Section 11 (1) and (2) of the West Bengal Correctional Services Act enshrines the rules regarding the welfare approach to prisoners.

11 (1) The State Government may, for each of the central correctional home, district correctional home and special correctional home, appoint such number of Chief Welfare Officers and Welfare Officers as it may consider necessary. The Chief Welfare Officer shall have the rank and status of the Superintendent of a district correctional home and the Welfare Officer shall have the rank and status of the Chief Controller of Correctional Services. The qualifications and the terms and conditions of services of the Chief Welfare Officers and the Welfare Officers shall be such as may be prescribed.

     (2) It shall be the duty of the Welfare Officer

          a) To look after the correctional services and to see that the prisoners are not deprived of the amenities and privileges under this Act or under any other law for the time being in force;

          b) To organise and develop recreational, educational and cultural activities (including sports, games, physical culture and the like) amongst the prisoners;

          c) To give incentive to literary and artistic pursuits to the prisoners;

          d) To make efforts for betterment of educational, moral, culture and vocational equipment of the prisoners;

          e) To perform such other duties as may be prescribed.

These dialogues started in 2006 at the behest of the then Inspector General of Correctional Services, West Bengal, BD Sharma. He is majorly responsible for showing a new direction to correctional services in the state. His and the West Bengal Correctional Services’ efforts have been widely appreciated in jails across the country.

Alipore Central Jail in Kolkata, one of India's biggest correctional homes

Old vs new approach

The main difference between the old and the new approaches towards prisoners is that whereas earlier it was a negative approach, now it is a positive approach.

The old concepts were to…

  • isolate offenders from society 
  • create in the offender's mind a constant horror of punishment with a view to keeping him/her off the path of crime

On the other hand, modem penologists (those who study the theory and practice of prison management and criminal rehabilitation) suggest a mix of the following to bring offenders back into mainstream of society and to reduce crime:

  • humane behavior
  • avoidance of harshness
  • corrective measures
  • rehabilitation

Some guidelines

After discussing with various stakeholders like NGOs, the prisoners’ families and the prisoners themselves, the state’s correctional services has adopted a humane approach to the treatment of prisoners. Among the aspects which are taken into consideration are:

  • While planning the rehabilitation of the released inmates, the family background of the person is considered with regard to the type of vocational training which is given.
  • The skill has to be developed according to his/her interest and background.
  • As a result of punishment to any offender, the innocent family members are often the worst sufferers. Hence, the family members’ views are also taken into consideration while planning rehabilitation.
  • A prisoner is a part of the society. Mass awareness needs to be generated in this regard. This is very important if integration into society is to be successful. Hence, prisons in the state have been organising various cultural programmes which are presented before the general society. This makes it known to society that if prisoners, even hard-core criminals, try hard enough they can change their thoughts to become good citizens, and that society must also be proactive in accepting them back into its folds. Often it is the environment which leads one to a path of crime, and through a positively enabling environment, a person can be nurtured back to the path of good.
  • Meditation and yoga can control and change emotions, and these sessions help prisoners become good human beings and keep them calm and happy. Hence, yoga and Art of Living courses are conducted in correctional homes all across the state, to enthusiastic response.
  • Psychological treatment and proper education is also tremendously helpful in a person’s reformation.
  • Adequate accommodation, food, sanitation, water supply and medical care are given to the inmates.
  • Educational and developmental opportunities are provided to the children of convicts and to the children in the prisons (children born to inmates often stay in jails as long as their mothers are inside, as there can be no replacement for a mother as a caregiver).

Artist Chitta Dey (in kurta) overlooking an art class for prisoners at Alipore Central Jail

Culture therapy

Among the approaches adopted by West Bengal Correctional Services, the one which has been most widely appreciated is culture therapy, which has been running since 2007. This consists of things like training inmates in acting and making them stage plays, inside as well as outside jails (hence the much-needed interaction with society), organising exhibitions of paintings by them, etc.

Tagore's dance drama, Valmiki Pratibha, presented by prison inmates in West Bengal in 2007 as part of the new approach, was the one which brought culture therapy into focus. It was performed by inmates of Presidency, Midnapore and Alipore Correctional Homes, as well as some of the prison staff anf their family members. It was perhaps for the first time in the history of prisons in the world that jail staff were performing with prisoners in the same play.

Among the people who benefitted immensely from this play are Nigel Akkara and Debashish Chakraborty  Once hardened criminals and now do-gooders for all of society, Nigel alias Vikki and Debashish bring to life in more ways than one the old age story of the dacoit Ratnakar, who metamorphosed into the famous sage Valmiki. There is a real-life parallel in the theme by way of the prisoners' journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge of the performing arts. Both have been regular performers of the play. Of course there were many others too. Some like Ashit Ghosh have perfomed in all its shows.

Nigel Akkara (extreme left) as Ratnakar, who later becomes Valmiki, in Valmiki Pratibha

Shining stars, Nigel and Debashish

Lifer Nigel, who spent eight years behind bars before being released on compassionate grounds, has opened a company, Kolkata Facilities Management, which has given employment to many freed prisoners, who many companies hesitate to employ. The company offering security services, cleaning and pest-control solutions. He is also working with the Regional Institute of Correctional Administration, helping other inmates to develop confidence and self-respect. Besides the hugely successful dance drama, Valmiki Pratibha, he has acted on stage in Chandalika, Matri Shakti, Vande Mataram and Agomoni. In recent years, Nigel has also gained fame in films after acting in the hit, Muktodhara, co-starring Rituparna Sengupta. It is based on his eventful life. He is now doing a Malayalam film.

Debashish’s clay sculpture 'Peace Plaque' was presented to President Pratibha Patil in 2008. He has worked as associate sculptor with eminent artist Chitta Dey in the famous ‘Pakhi Pahar’ project, a flight of birds being engraved on a hillock in the Ayodhya Hills in Purulia district.

Rituparna Sengupta and Nigel Akkara in a scene from the film, Muktodhara

So far, Valmiki Prathibha has had an unprecedented run of more than 50 public performances across the state and other cities like Delhi and Bhubaneswar. Besides this, the inmates of various prisons across West Bengal have enacted other Tagore works like Tasher Desh, Ashoka, Tota Kahini and Raktakarabi, and performed the audio-drama Sheser Kabita, to huge responses.

It was at the Berhampore reformatory that the idea of prison theatre was born in 2005. A group of 20 prisoners came together to stage Tagore's Tasher Desh under the tutelage of actor Pradip Bhattacharya. It was this drama that spurred the then IG (Prisons) BD Sharma to initiate plays at Presidency Jail two years later.

Many dignitaries and well-known people in the sphere of art and culture have watched and appreciated their performances. In fact, after watching a performance, the famous playwright Manoj Mitra was stunned by the immense talent displayed by some of the inmates. Last December, a Prison Theatre Festival was organised, the first of its kind in Kolkata.

Culture therapy has branched out into other artistic areas as well.

The inmates have been trained in painting over the years by eminent painters and sculptors. They have held art exhibitions where leading painters and sculptors like Uma Siddhanta, Ramananda Bandopadhyay, Rabin Mondol, Subrata Gangopadhyay and Chitto Dey have painted alongside them.

The art therapy project began in 2007. Within two years, the first exhibition and sale of the inmates’ creations was held at Kolkata’s prestigious Birla Academy of Art and Culture where buyers snapped up works priced between Rs 8,000 and 10,000. Subsequent exhibitions have been equally successful.

Prisoners of Alipore Central Jail have been making idols for Durga Puja for the past few years and they are being sold outside.

Music company SaReGaMa India has brought out an audio CD titled Andhokarer Utso Hote (‘From the Depths of Darkness’), containing classical Bengali poetry recited by the prisoners.

In 2012, Flight to Harmony Foundation and Directorate of Correctional Services, Government of West Bengal, joined hands to open an art gallery in the Alipore Correctional Home in Kolkata -- the first in India's prison history. The gallery was named Srishtikala Bhavan by Shankar Chakrabarty, Minister-in-Charge, Department of Correctional Administration, Government of West Bengal.

At the inauguration of Srishtikala Bhavan

The teachers

Eminent persons like Odissi danseuse Alokananda Roy, theatre director Pradip Bhattacharya, sculptor and painter Chitta Dey and elocutionist Bratati Bandyopadhyay have been engaged from time to time to train the inmates in workshops held at various correctional homes.

It was Alokananda Roy who, at the invitation of BD Sharma, started the dance therapy sessions, which has changed the lives of many prisoners. She was the one who trained the inmates for the hugely successful Valmiki Prathibha.

According to Roy, it was a great experience to train the inmates. Initially she was asked to train the women inmates, as it was about dancing. But after noticing the men’s interest, she asked for, and was granted, permission to train them as well. Initially, she said, she found they were not enjoying the dance. Then she introduced martial dance and folk dance, which was heartily accepted by the men.

BD Sharma, Alokananda Roy, film-maker Abhijit Dasgupta (left to right)

A new beginning for prisoners

These creative vehicles of art, dance, music, poetry and theatre have brought about unimaginable psychological and physiological uplift of prisoners. A sense of self-respect and confidence is growing among the prisoners. The funds for these activities are generated by the sales of their paintings and sculptures as well as tickets to the performances that they give.

Apart from building trust and promoting family values among them, the unique by-product of culture therapy has been the establishment of a prisoners' welfare fund. The prisoners now generate funds and the money is being utilised for their own welfare as well as that of their family members.

Culture therapy has also been successfully pursued by major prisons like Tihar Jail in Delhi and Aguada Central Jail in Panaji.

As Nigel Akkara rightly said in an interview, “I believe that no one is born a criminal. Circumstances force them into crime. We need to be sensitive and not push them back into the lives that they wanted to leave behind.”

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Comments (2)
Meera J Reply
March 17, 2014
Fantastic! Being an ex Calcuttan I am proud of this pioneering reform!
March 17, 2014
THIS IS FOR NIGEL AKKARA - . DON... DUNGEON.....DIVINE 2/08/12 A faint ray of light entered the damp dreary crevise. Here howled the dark faced bright eyed 'Precious.' His moments of trial, tribulations was a menace........ The world awaits his true worth in 'Muktodhara's release. May the aura of your self worth be the light Let the darkness fall apart after a severe fight You have attained the moment when the inner sight educate the Evolution of Consciousness bright. Should i say - A different world awaits the new dawn? When this 'Ray' shall illuminate every corner of the hole.?
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