Prison Reform

Criminal justice institutions (CJIs) in India are a colonial legacy that have remained largely unchanged in the decades since independence. The living conditions of the prisoners and undertrials incarcerated in these institutions leave much to be desired. The apathy of society, the state authorities and in some cases, even their families, severely restricts the chances of these persons to lead productive lives. This lack of progress largely impacts people from poor and under-privileged backgrounds, who form nearly 80 per cent of the inmates of prisons, borstals, women’s shelters, beggars’ homes, etc. According to a recent study, one in every three undertrial prisoners in India is from scheduled castes/tribes.

The Indian prison system is also severely strained by the weight of those arrested for petty offences including ticketless travel, loitering, petty theft, etc – crimes that can be linked to lack of employment opportunities and social security benefits. A majority of the residents aren’t even convicted criminals; they include people undergoing trials and not yet proven guilty of their alleged crimes.

People who are confined in CJIs are often ostracised after release; the tag of ‘criminal’ is difficult to erase. Many of them are first-time offenders who, with a little social support and appropriate help and guidance, have a very good chance of reintegrating into society. However, without emotional and financial support, the chances are that one-time offenders will be pushed deeper into crime, or lead lives marked by addiction or destitution.

Unfortunately, there’s no robust institutionalised system in India to provide help and guidance at any stage of a person’s life in CJIs – not at the time of admission, nor at the time of confinement or release. State efforts at rehabilitating are restricted to providing training in income-generation activities or advancing small business loans to prisoners upon release. However, state agencies do not offer regular, continuing support to these released criminals.

The strategy

The Tata Trusts have invested in a professional and systematic approach to strengthening civil society since the 1940s, when they first established the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, (then Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work). The Trusts’ initiatives involve training social workers who help people at all stages of incarceration, so that needy and excluded persons can get access to justice.

The Trusts have been long-standing supporters of Prayas, TISS’ pioneering Field Action Project, which was established to offer legal and rehabilitation services to persons from resource-poor communities. In the last 29 years, Prayas has consistently provided evidence for the need for social workers within the prison system.

But initiatives that are donor dependent provide services that vary in support and are often temporary. So, the aim of the Trusts’ prison reform initiative is to provide a platform to conceptualise a permanent state-funded programme to use trained social workers in CJIs.

Social workers can bring a convergence of services into the prison system to secure prisoners’ rights, and to work for their welfare. For example, social workers work inside prisons and interact with prisoners on a daily basis to:
  • Appraise prisoners about the various government schemes such as Bal Sangopan Yojana, Grant-in-Aid scheme and Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana. They also assist prisoners in availing these schemes.
  • Organise specialised health camps in prisons.
  • Help process phone number verification at the local police station to enable prisoners (convicts) to contact their families.

Prayas’ work has inspired several projects in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat and the resultant impact within the criminal justice system has encouraged the Trusts to support four other initiatives working within the sector: Sudhar, VARHAD (Voluntary Action for Rehabilitation and Development), Sahyog and Disha. These projects have made significant contributions to policy and procedures for the maintenance and care of prisoners and undertrials.

The Trusts collaborate with Prayas and VARHAD to implement social work in the criminal justice system, including:
  • Starting a prison industry: A sanitary pad manufacturing unit was installed in Nagpur Prison in May 2018. Fifteen women convicts were trained to manufacture sanitary napkins inside the prison. This addresses the dual purposes of raising awareness of menstrual hygiene as well as providing them with a sustainable livelihood training.
  • Vocational training: Skill development of prisoners in areas such as two-wheeler mechanics, electricians, stitching and paper bag-making.
  • Availing government schemes: Efforts are being made to help prisoners and their families avail of welfare schemes of the state like grant-in-aid schemes to support ex-prisoners with seed money, and Bal Sangopan Yojana, a foster care scheme to support education for children of prisoners.
  • Mental health interventions

The Trusts also support Prayas to run a Fellowship programme that incubates emerging social change practitioners in this sector. Other Trusts’ grantees have also collaborated with universities and NGOs across the country, as well as with trained lawyers in districts to launch social work and other legal aid services.

As a result, social work interventions within India’s CJS has spread to parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, West Bengal and Delhi.

Areas of operation
Maharashtra, Gujarat

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