Sunday, May 2, 2010

Jail with a humane touch

.......I took a deep breath and stepped inside the compound. Advivaram Central Jail was a far cry from the sordid prisons I saw on TV. The 150-acre sprawling land overlooking the Ghats, was beautifully landscaped. The superintendent’s office was spacious with French window look-likes that gave a good view of the dormitories and nature. After exchanging pleasantries, he warned me not to move too close to the inmates. With three armed guards I was on my way to attend the Morning Prayer with the inmates. By the time I reached, they were done with their Sunday prayers and listening raptly to a discourse by one of the Brahma Kumari. The silence was broken by a moment of commotion among the audience. I felt their enquiring stares and heard their whispers. I greeted the speaker and stood in a corner.

The speech resumed in a few minutes, but Raju, who was sitting in the last row, looked distracted. I pretended oblivious when he stole a few stares at me. I knew whom to start with after the speech. I caught his eye this time and smiled. He was startled and looked embarrassed as if he was caught stealing. He didn’t move a bone in the rest of the session.

I introduced myself to Raju, he greeted me hesitantly and moved quickly to join his group of friends. I realized that it was the guards and not I who shooed him away. I asked the guards to wait, while I joined his group of friends. After the initial hiccups, the men opened up, talked about their village, job and family. I met others to know how they were finding the morning prayers. The prayers and discourses sure made a difference, when the Brahma Kumari told me that around 40% turned vegetarians after they started visiting Advivaram. Shifting to vegetarianism is just not a food habit change but a transition to calmer and peaceful lifestyle.

I met the vocational instructor who was training them to make almarahs, boxes, carpentry and wooden toys. When I asked the challenges he faced with his students, he was clearly offended. “There are many skilled artisans here. Just because they are here, it makes them no less than anyone. Will you ever know that they spent few years in jail if you had met them outside?” The middle-aged instructor annoyed me but it was his way of letting me know that I should not make his pupil feel “different”. I took a quick tour of the place where the shining tin boxes, almarahs and intricately carved toys were ready to be dispatched to the bazaars of Vizag and Vizianagaram. I had a renewed respect for the instructor who busied himself with his talented students.

I interacted with the gardener and his students in the sprawling gardens. “Few of them are so good that they can start their own nurseries,” said he. I spent time strolling, talking and laughing at the jokes cracked by the inmates. All this while, my temporary body guards never lost me out of their sight. It was time for me to head towards the kitchen to check out the Sunday lunch. I was pleasantly surprised to know that the chief and sous chefs are inmates! I got a welcoming smile from one of the cooks who was making “gongora chatni”. “We make more vegetarian food than non-vegetarian these days. Many have shifted to vegetarianism and the numbers are increasing faster,” he said. “Will you taste our food?” he asked hesitatingly. “Give me some rice with gongora chatni. It’s my favorite,” I said. The chatni was a bit sour to my liking. I walked into a dormitory which had 8 beds arranged in two rows. The inmates were relaxing after their morning work and waiting for the lunch bell. I was greeted by an inmate in his late 50’s. The cell looked lively as some were watching a movie on a portable color TV hung from the roof while the wining duo was noisy at a game of carom. Devudu, the oldest member of the cell, spent 15 years in the jail. “How many years left?” I asked. “I am here for double murder, so will be here for a while.” He stared at me a tad longer to note my reaction. He was relieved to see that I was nonchalant.

My next stop was the psychiatry cell, where a group of social workers, counselors, and psychiatrist deal with the most difficult part – helping the inmates to cope up with their new surroundings. “The first few months are the most difficult for a newbie. The newbie lives in denial and either gets depressed or hostile. We help him/her to come to terms with the situation.” Besides fighting the teething problem, the team is kept busy containing homosexuality and STDs.

It was late afternoon when I thanked the guards whose presence helped me to sail through the day. My perception towards the inmates changed. They were mere victims of a moment of weakness. Most of them regret for their actions and wished if they had been strong enough to withstand the testing times. But what bothered them was if they would be accepted in the free world. Families visit them often initially. Slowly the gap widens. Weekly visits turn to biweekly, then monthly, few months and subsequently once or twice in a year. They miss being at marriages, baby showers or festivals. Life outside the wall moves fast whereas inside it just stops.

The jail was thrown open for the public on Sundays for a month. “Are the inmates an object of amusement for the public to see?” I asked the jailer. “It is just an effort to let public change their perception about the inmates so that they get accepted once they go back,” he answered. This news was taken with mixed feels among the inmates. While some were happy that they get to interact with public, others were offended by their exhibition.

I went back to the free world with mixed feelings. I was glad that they live with more dignity than the ones languishing in other parts of the country. And sorry because no matter what freedom is priceless.