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Open house

Open house

Author: Rohit Parihar
Publication: India Today
Date: March 2, 2009
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=29775&sectionid=21&Itemid=1&issueid=94

Introduction: Rajasthan's open jails, with little security and opportunities to learn and earn, are a success worth replicating countrywide.

Manish Dixit, a young civil engineer, drives a Scorpio, uses the latest cellphone and lives in a wellfurnished house. Sounds like another successful professional? Yes, but with a difference: Dixit is a convicted murderer serving a lengthy jail sentence in an 'open jail'.

Dixit's prison at Sanganer, near Jaipur airport, is one of the 'open jails' started by the Rajasthan Government back in 1963 as an experiment. Almost half a century later, the concept has proved to be a success. Rajasthan's 13 open jails are home to 504 inmates; another 10 such jails are planned next year so as to have one open jail in each of the state's 33 districts.

The Sanganer facility is quite remarkable, or unremarkable. There are no high walls or visible security. The 170-odd residents live with their families, cook their own food, have televisions, coolers, refrigerators and even their own vehicles if they can afford it. Dixit certainly can. "There is freedom and comfort to grow but also watchful eyes to not let me stray again," he says.

The idea of open jails, conceptualised by former governor Sampurnanand, was borrowed from the West where open jails are fairly common. Based on their conduct, convicts in regular jails are first categorised as low-risk before being transferred. Open prisons have relaxed security and are generally used to prepare inmates for their release. Usually meant for white-collar criminals, inmates convicted of serious crimes, including murder and rape, can also be transferred to open prisons towards the end of their sentences if assessed as low-risk.

In India, the concept has been expanded to allow convicts to spend the final stretch of their terms with their families, to earn and work in nearby towns and even build their own homes in the fenceless jail premises. The final term in such jails is a transition phase to ready convicts for release and allow them to rework their social equations.

Some inmates get married to other inmates; a few even have children in jail. There are 27 open jails across India, but most states have just one or two each. Rajasthan has the most and a visit to Sanganer jail explains why the concept works so well. Convicts who can afford it have built their own houses and go outside to work and earn. The 'jail' is actually located in a business zone which offers opportunities for inmates to find jobs.

Open jails such as this have a campus feel. Some are designed as a part of universities to let qualified inmates work on farms or laboratories and also earn degrees to help them fit into society. Suraj Mal, 32, a resident of Pal village near Jodhpur, was convicted of killing his sister-in-law.

Lodged in an open jail located on the campus of the Agriculture Research Station, Jodhpur, he lives here with his wife and child. Suraj did his masters in philosophy and political science while he was in a regular jail. Working on the farm at the research station earns him Rs 2,600 a month, and, being a welder and carpenter by profession, he does odd jobs in the evenings. "The open jail has prepared me to make my living as a skilled worker once I am released," he says. "There are so many inspiring stories of inmates in open jails that it justifies a research chair on them," says P.K. Tiwari, Rajasthan's director-general of police.

Another notable feature of the open jail is the presence of women living alone in the company of male prisoners. There is no segregation as in normal prisons but most women find it quite safe. Sumitra, 48, was once headmistress in a government school and was convicted of killing a servant. She has been lodged in an open jail in Jodhpur since 2002 and works as an assistant in a laboratory. "It is like living with a family," she says.

The minimum time served in regular jail to qualify convicts for open jails is six years. Thus, it is only those serving long sentences who get into open jails, usually for another six to 10 years. These prisons come under the Rajasthan Prisoners Open Air Camp Rules under which there is no defined size or population (some new jails being proposed will begin with just 10 prisoners) and there have to be provisions for employment.

Considering the facilities and relative freedom, jail officials admit that bribes and high-level recommendations play a role in selecting inmates. Preeta Bhargav, Rajasthan's first woman superintendent of police who is also in charge of Sanganer, insists that the norm for picking convicts with exceptionally good conduct for open jails needs to be strictly followed.

Despite infringements, it does provide an ideal atmosphere for prisoners to be rehabilitated into society. Mohan Lal, 58, worked as a cashier in a bank in Jaipur and was convicted in a dowry death case. He used his time in Sanganer to set up an iron trading business. Most open jail prisoners meet their own expenses. What is also remarkable is that very few prisoners escape, even though security is virtually non-existent in these jails.

There were just seven escapes between 1988 and 1997, which rose to 32 between 1998 and 2008. Even that is a relatively minuscule number. Further, prisoners have a deadline for returning to the campus and any infringement means they are shifted back to regular jails. Not many want to risk being deprived of the freedom and opportunities that open jails provide.

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