As a part of my internship with the Criminal Justice Fellowship Programme, Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) (currently working on socio-legal aid service for under-trial prisoners in Bihar), I got the opportunity to visit certain jails including the Central Prison. My mentor, Praveen Kumar, who is a Criminal Justice Fellow and has been granted standing permission to visit prisons in Bihar by the Chief Justice of Patna High Court, guided me. As a typical nascent learner, I was excited but I portrayed a gloomy image as a result of the negative connotations attached to prisons.
Honestly, I was expecting to come across jailors and policemen in a ferocious and vicious avatar, hardcore and notorious criminals like Gabbar Singh, and restricted liberty. As soon as I entered the prison, the first thing that flashed through my mind was Ramadhir Singh’s dialogue from Gangs of Wasseypur – ‘Jab tak iss desh me sanima hai, log chutiya bante rhenge’ (Until Cinema/Bollywood Exist In This Country, People Will Continue getting fooled). I think anyone who visits a prison will have similar thoughts.
Our first encounter was with the Jail Superintendent who seemed happy to have us understand the workings of a prison. While we were in conversation with him, many prisoners approached him with their issues and not for a second did we feel that ‘power dynamics’ were being used and instead, a remedy was provided on the spot.
He briefed us about his ideology of reformative rather than retributive treatment. After a brief discussion with him, we were assigned a sub-inspector who accompanied us to the main prison. I was surprised to see the cleanliness that was maintained by the prisoners which went against my perception of what prison would look like.
We were first taken to the bread and oil manufacturing units which were maintained by the prisoners and I observed the prevailing self-sufficiency there. We were acquainted with the fact that the manufactured goods are transferred to other jails and vice-versa, hence self-sufficiency is achieved. They familiarised us with the complete process of bread manufacturing and I was impressed to see the hygiene maintained throughout the process. We then proceeded to the canteen which was also maintained by prisoners and was by no means less than the shops we visit outside prison.
The manager who was a convict himself was super excited to tell us about the workings of the canteen and he gave us a detailed description on how they came up with the idea of operating the canteen and how it helped the prisoners. Another thing which impressed me was that the canteen was completely cashless and transactions took place through smart cards. I was surprised to know that they followed this practice even before the cashless economy drive was raised by the government.
Our next halt was the Music room which was visible from a distance and I assumed it to be a normal recreational room. But, just like my other myths, which were shattered, the ambience, instruments, and paintings left me speechless and were far better than what anyone could expect from a prison. We met a few under-trials who had arranged a programme for us and the breathtaking performances given by the singers, the drummer, the piano guy and others kept us on the edge of our seats and what was supposed to be a 15 minute stop, went on for hours.
It was a superb experience to witness some real talent in the era of nonsense ‘tik-tok’ sensations becoming stars overnight. After the performance, we exchanged a few words with them and the singer told us that he made it to Top-50 of the Indian Idol in 2010, while the drummer was a renowned figure in orchestras in Bihar. They told us that all the instruments and facilities were provided by the jail administration and that their needs were taken care of and the jail superintendent was very cooperative. This invoked a thought; why isn’t this talent being utilised?
Is it justified to let such talents decay by labelling them as criminals and prisoners? With this idea in my mind, we visited the prison gym and I have no shame in admitting that it would give tough competition to the gym we have back in our college. The library and computer facility for those who wish to continue their academics was also commendable. We were informed that the success rate of the Asst. Engineer examination under the skill development programme was 100%! Though I wanted to explore more, the sun was about to set and as per prison rules, we had to leave.
Overall, my experience was an eye-opener, it helped me to break stereotypes and changed my perception inside out. I would suggest that budding lawyers from different law colleges should visit prisons and develop their own sense of understanding instead of relying on hearsay.
I was happy that my perception of the prison was proven blatantly wrong. I think we need to introduce the facility of open jails for such prisoners who have immense talent as we shift towards the reformative paradigm. The prisoners expressed similar feelings and admitted that while they are being punished for the wrongs committed by them, they should be given the opportunity to get back on track and become better human beings again. The jail administration provided facilities to the best of their abilities and I believe it is now up to the government to further improve facilities. Also, society needs to stop labelling these deviants as criminals for the rest of their lives.