In 1954, a few years after India gained its independence, the governor of the western Indian state of Rajasthan and other freedom fighters who had spent time behind bars during the freedom struggle, decided to reimagine the colonial prison structure. They planned out the country’s first open prisons, which exist to this day and essentially operate as small villages where people who are in their sentences are free to live with their families and to work as long as they respect a few key rules including daily roll- calls. Open prisons have withstood the test of time, and are a humane solution for rehabilitation, leading to neglibible rates of recidivism, at a fraction of the cost of regular prisons. And yet, most of the 480,000 people serving criminal sentences in India are in closed, over-crowded prisons. After seeing open prisons for the first time, Kolkata-based social entrepreneur and justice advocate Smita Chakraburtty was convinced they needed to become the norm across India. Ashoka’s Shantanu Paul spoke to Smita, founder of Prison Aid & Action Research (Paar), to find out more:
Shantanu Paul: In 2014 you were commissioned by the Bihar State prison authorities to inspect the 58 prisons of the north-eastern Indian state. And you spoke to each one of the 30,070 people imprisoned there. What did you learn from these conversations?
Smita Chakraburtty: For the first time in Indian history the court was commissioning a social researcher to enter prison and speak to the people there. This was out about and my goal was to find people’s living conditions in prison, the status of their cases, and whether they had access to justice and legal aid. I refused to accept police or bodyguards when I entered the prison because it would have defeated the purpose. This helped create trust with the people in jail, and on the very first day they told me: ‘Don’t worry, you’re safe amongst us. Your security is our concern.’ Walking through 58 prisons of Bihar interacting with 30,000 prisoners, I felt safe inside the prison – and they were overcrowded, packed prisons where there was no space to stand. That itself was a big learning.
I understood that people in prisons are not the ‘demons’ they’re made out to be and that no individual can be defined by one incident. Less than one percent of people in jail are habitual offenders, and only 30 percent of them are actually convicted of a crime. The majority of them are one-time offenders, accidental offenders, or people who never perpetrated any offense at all but got stuck there because they couldn’t afford a proper legal defense. Any time people ask me about their concern for safety when I speak about open prisons, I come back to this point.
Paul: How did you first learn about open prisons?
Chakraburtty: After I submitted my report on the Bihar prison inspection, the Supreme Court of India paid close attention. So did the Parliamentary Standing Committee, the Department of Law & Justice, the National Human Rights Commission and the press. As a result, the Supreme Court made it mandatory for all states to conduct Bihar-like prison inspections. I started to get a lot of invitations to help conduct those inspections, and one day I got one from Rajasthan. Mr Ajit Singh, director general of a prison there, told me: ‘We have a unique problem. We will have to conduct prisoner evictions because they don’t want to leave.’ I couldn’t believe it. I spoke to 30,070 prisoners on record, and I’d never come across a single individual saying that they don’t want to leave prison. So of course, I went to find out more.
The superintendent took me to this village. I asked him ‘Can we now visit the prison?’ and he told me we were in it. I was baffled because there were no bars, there was no wall, there was no gate, there was no guard, no uniformed men. It took me some time to process that this is a village, but it is also a prison. I was thinking that if this has been there for the last 70 years, why can’t we spread it across the country? It stood the test of time, and it’s a humane alternative to the prison system.
Paul: What was it about the open prison that convinced you?
Chakraburtty: All caging people does is institutionalize violence, and we know from recidivism rates that it does not work. Once you understand that the majority of people in prison are not violent offenders who pose no threat to society, our existing prison system simply becomes unjustifiable. The open prison system is radically different. It is a trust-based, minimum-security system. Nobody is there to monitor you. There are two roll-calls per day. You are free to stay with your family. You get out in the morning and come back in the evening. You earn a livelihood of your choice. There are schools inside the prison for children. There’s a lot of dignity in it.
People always ask me: ‘Don’t people run away?’ And they don’t because they had to earn their liberty and dignity out of a lot of struggles. If they decide not to return, the police will definitely catch them and put them behind bars again, losing their liberty. In an open prison system, liberty is the incentive, and that’s why it works. One has to see it to believe it. And, again, I want to repeat that this is a 70-year-old system, it has stood the test of time, the rate of recidivism is negligible. It’s a cost effective system. This can be easily expanded across the country, and across the world.
Paul: Like you say, ‘you have to see it to believe it.’ But we can’t all go visit an open prison. How are you helping people open up to this idea?
Chakraburtty: A very big part of the problem is that prisons and the people who live in them are invisible. It’s taboo to even talk about it. So we started a social media page called Open Prison Voices to bring their stories to life. They speak in their first-person voice, about their experiences, their everyday achievements like, setting up a business, someone’s daughter passing her final exams, getting to wear color clothes again for the first time. These stories show that people in prison are just like you and me.
There’s the story of Manish for example. When I met him, he was in Jaipur Central prison (a closed prison in Rajasthan). Since he knew how to read and write, I asked him to help me with prison surveys of toilets and drinking water facilities. He didn’t understand why someone like me would care about this and we had a lot of conversations about it. I told him ‘Prison is a superbly expensive institution. And the outcome is not very good.’ I told him about open prisonsm and that thanks to a recent Supreme Court order in Rajasthan, he could actually go there himself if he wanted. He asked me how to file a petition so I showed him, and suddenly 200 other prisoners all filed petitions too. It was an empowering exercise. When I met him inside prison, Manish was so lost, he was disturbed, he didn’t know what to do. He came out to the open prison, and he set up his own business, he got married, he settled down. And he’s now a big advocate for open prisons.
The second thing we’ve focused on is making the prisons themselves more visible. We have mapped all 1,400 of India’s prisons on Google Maps. So the next time you order food delivery you’ll see prisons popping up on your map. And if you click on the prison you’ll see how many people are staying there, whether they have drinking water or not, if they have been vaccinated for COVID. So suddenly you have an insight into what’s happening there. Mindsets are changing. Open prisons will be a norm within the next 10-15 years, I’m very confident about it.