|LIFE BEYOND BARS: The music room in Tihars Jail No. 2;
a placement interview in progress; and a hairstyling training session
by Habibs ; Pix by Ramakant Kushwaha
A robust rendition of the soulful Kishore Kumar hit Yeh shaam mastani disturbs the late afternoon calm. Chandan and Ravi Kumar are in full form, accompanied by five others playing various instruments. Theres rapture on their faces.
Rapture? When one wall of the large room in which they are jamming has vertical iron grills? And their two-man audience is dressed in khaki?
Call it Jailhouse Rock.
These seven are undertrials in Jail No. 3 of Indias largest prison Tihar Central Jail in Delhi. And much like Elvis Presleys character in the film, they are also discovering their musical talent while waiting to get out of prison. Harpal runs his fingers lovingly over the tabla I could never have got this at home, he says.
They arent the only ones. Theres a music room in each of the 10 jails in Tihars sprawling complex, each equipped with a music system, a guitar, drums, bongos, harmonium, tabla and keyboard. Music teachers, including well-known people like Kamal Sabri, come regularly and theres a weekly inter-jail music competition.
Will they become musicians when they are released? Thats not clear yet, but several inmates know theres a bright future waiting for them when their terms end.
On November 15, 100 convicted inmates exchanged their prison uniforms for more formal attire grey trousers, white shirt and ties for men and white salwar-kameezes for women. And then they lined up for job interviews at a campus placement, as the authorities prefer to call it. Seventy-four of them got offers with salaries ranging from Rs 8,000 to Rs 50,000 a month. This is the third event this year. The earlier two saw 95 inmates getting job offers, armed with good conduct certificates from the jail authorities.
The so-what-if-theyre-in-jail attitude is best exemplified by a very unapologetic brand name for biscuits, namkeens and spices made by inmates TJs. The bright red-and-yellow packets, earlier available only at outlets at the jail and court complexes in Delhi, are now on display at a small outlet at the glitzy Select City Mall in Delhis Saket, which is clocking sales of Rs 5,000-6,000 a day.
Weve got a complete package of correction and reform measures, says director-general prisons Neeraj Kumar. Putting people in jail isnt enough. Its equally important to rehabilitate and re-integrate them in society. That helps bring down recidivism (return to crime). Hes proud of the fact that his Padho aur Padhao (learn and teach) programme in collaboration with the National Literacy Mission has brought down illiteracy levels in the jail from 40 per cent to 10 per cent in the last one year.
Things have certainly come a long way from the early 1990s when Kiran Bedi, as inspector-general, prisons, initiated radical reforms in the jail. She introduced yoga and meditation for inmates, tie-ups with the National Open School and Indira Gandhi National Open University (Ignou), music performances and vocational training. Since then successive director-generals have added their touch to jail reforms. We are there not to additionally punish their captivity but use the time to give them an opportunity to reflect and recover, Bedi told The Telegraph in an email. She is particularly appreciative of the way the TJs brand has been built up. The bread factory, which evolved into a bakery, was set up with some seed funding from the reward money she got along with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for prison reforms in 1994.
Now Shiamak Davar holds dance workshops in the jail and Habibs conducts a free six-month training course in hairstyling. And if all goes well, Tihar will soon have a Satyajit Ray Film Club. A projector and some DVDs of film classics have been purchased in Jail No. 3, with former high-profile inmate Sudheendra Kulkarni, arrested in the cash-for-votes case helping select the films.
The dance, music, films, theatre and painting seven paintings were sold at a recent exhibition in Delhi help prisoners forget, at least for a while, their circumstances. All these create an environment of reflection and creativity, says Bedi.
When we are here, we just get lost in the music. Otherwise we are always thinking about the case and getting depressed, says Manish. Adds Ajit Kumar, its not like being in jail at all; its like being in a hostel.
Jail authorities, however, encountered some reluctance on the part of inmates to join the education programmes there are tie-ups with the National Open Schools and Ignou which offers a range of graduate and postgraduate courses. M.K. Dwivedi, superintendent of Jail No. 3 which houses the Ignou study centre, often had prisoners ask him why they should study when theyre not going to get jobs after being released. That led to Kumar and Dwivedi thinking of placement programmes.
It took six months, several meetings and the assistance of some non-government organisations associated with the jail to convince sceptical companies to participate in the programme. The jail got someone to hold classes on grooming, personality development and conduct in interviews. We said just come and meet them, dont hire them if they are not found suitable, says Dwivedi. A few inmates got selected in low-skill jobs during the first programme. Interest grew and the number of participating companies increased to nine in July and 15 in November.
Tushar Kumar, who recruited for the Delhi-based software development firm Tekege Solutions, was among the initial sceptics. I wondered why we were going to a jail and not a college, he confesses. But his misgivings disappeared when he found well-qualified, confident candidates. He hired two people for the firms sales campaigns. If they had come to the office, we would have taken them, so why not from jail, he asks.
M.S. Rizvi, manager at Future Mason, a Delhi-based manpower outsourcing firm, handed out 25 offer letters to prisoners, including 10 women. Everyone can make a mistake. When they are qualified and have a good conduct certificate, why shouldnt we give them another chance, he asks.
Inmates cant believe their luck. Some who got offer letters from Rizvi asked him repeatedly will you really give me a job when I come out?
But is it the job of the jail authorities to find employment for inmates? It isnt, says Kumar, but if we dont, who will? The best testimonial for the campus placement came when a former inmate, who had got a Rs 20,000 a month job at the first programme, told those assembled for the third how he had now landed a Rs 50,000 a month job. His neighbours, who used to shun him whenever he went home on parole, are now socialising with him. That gave me confidence that something good will result, says Rahul, who had only studied up to Class X when he came to jail.
Its good that the prison authorities are taking the initiative in this, says R.K. Saxena, former inspector-general of prisons, Rajasthan, but the real credit goes to society which is not stigmatising prisoners. Singh, who believes post-release rehabilitation is an important part of correctional administration, had persuaded the late Maharani Gayatri Devi to get released inmates from Rajasthan jails employed as carpet weavers.
To be sure, whats happening in Tihar isnt exactly new. Other jails in the country also have education and vocational training programmes and jail factories which make products ranging from carpets to furniture. Tihar gets attention because it is in Delhi and is more visible, says Saxena, who helped a cardiologist serving time in Jodhpur jail to work outside the jail from 8am to 6pm. Tihar also gets more money than other jails, where the state government has to divide funds among several jails.
But for Tihars inmates, all this is irrelevant. Says Santosh, who got a bachelor of social work degree from Ignou while in jail and has got two job offers in hand, Now I feel secure about the future.
Clearly, Tihars jailbirds are all set to fly into a new and rewarding life.
(Names of all inmates have been changed.)