A comfort prison to reform convicts - 'Model' punishment

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By M.R. VENKATESH in Chennai
  • Published 17.12.06

Chennai, Dec. 17: Landscaped gardens, a primary school, a hospital, a gym, an amphitheatre, a salon and a meditation hall. A brochure for a luxury housing complex? Wrong, these are some of the facilities a prison on the outskirts of Chennai boasts of.

The Puzhal prison complex — dubbed “Asia’s largest and most modern prison” — is more of a reform centre.

Gone are the days when opening of prisons used to be a hush-hush, almost secretive, affair. The DMK regime in Tamil Nadu broke free of the Raj legacy and threw open the jail with fanfare.

It is a “model prison” for the entire South Asia, beamed chief minister M. Karunanidhi as he cut the ribbon.

Tihar Jail in Delhi can accommodate more inmates than any other prison in the country. But Puzhal is bigger in terms of size and facilities available, according to official sources. Spread over 212 acres, the complex was built in less than three years at a cost of Rs 177 crore.

Deconstructing age-old notions of prisons being dingy, high-walled structures with an eerie look about their iron-barred cells, the Puzhal complex balances stringent security requirements with innovations that take care of human rights, said K.P. Jain, the chairman of the Tamil Nadu Police Housing Corporation that built the complex.

A landscaped garden leads to the three prisons in the complex that “comfortably” house 3,000 inmates at a time.

Children of women prisoners can stay there till they are six years old and study at the primary school. There is also a hospital with surgical beds and specialists, an amphitheatre for staging cultural shows, a gymnasium, a rehabilitation centre where prisoners would be given vocational training, a meditation hall where yoga would be taught and a computer centre.

To take care of the prisoners’ daily needs, they will be provided ceiling fans and separate toilets with “ceramic tiles”. A salon in the complex will mean they won’t sport an unkempt look.

Each block will have a public address system. There will also be a quarantine block and a courtroom with video-conferencing facilities so that a prisoner whose remand is extended does not have to be moved out.

“It is a place not for punishment but transformation,” said Roopmathy Anand, the architect who designed it.

“We saw and studied a lot of prisons,” she added. These included prisons in Yeravada, Vellore, Hyderabad and Bangalore and Tihar Jail.

Of the three prisons in the Puzhal complex, the first comprises 1,250 cells for convicts, the second another 1,250 cells for undertrials and remand prisoners and the third has 500 cells exclusively for women. Each prison has its separate high-security block for terrorists and notorious prisoners.

According to Anand, conceptualising the jail complex involved in-depth study of factors from the points of view of “top officials to warders”. “We also factored in various scenarios to avoid any untoward incident inside jails while designing this prison complex.”

According to Jain, both the Prison Manual, to ensure security, and the norms prescribed by the National Human Rights Commission have been “scrupulously followed”. At the end of their term, “we want inmates to turn over a new leaf”, he added.

Some facilities were introduced even as the construction was on. For instance, a fire in an African prison some time ago brought home the need for fire extinguishers.

M. Kumar, the chief engineer in charge of the project, said this was one of his most challenging jobs. “When a fire breaks out, the safety of the inmates is most important, but at the same time the doors cannot be simply thrown open,” he said.

When inmates of Madras Central Prison are moved to Puzhal by December-end, the 140-year-old jail will be demolished to make space for the expansion of the Government General Hospital nearby.