Written by Aishwarya Birla
Prisons are seen as repositories for those who are aberrations in society, outcasts due to their unlawful acts. The Indian criminal justice system processes thousands of inmates every day, with as many as 4,19,623 inmates in 2015. Imprisonment is aimed, at least on paper, at not just correction and detention, but eventual reintegration into society as well. To this end, vocational training and prison labour are part of the extensive practices aimed at rehabilitation and eventual re-integration.
The Importance of Vocational Training
The main aim of vocational training in prisons is not only to provide knowledge and skills in a particular field but also to strengthen the will to work. It is the responsibility of the state to provide meaningful and gainful employment along with vocational training that is relevant and employable in current contexts. Despite this, there exist huge gaps in precept and practice.
Existing vocational programmes, today, have a fixation with traditional vocations. A stark derivation from this is the focus on industrial pursuits — like the stitching of footballs, building furniture, producing phenyl, etc. — over agricultural or environmental pursuits. Work and vocational training have become indistinguishable concepts with prisoners working at low wages, with Tihar jail paying at the higher end of the spectrum at 80 rupees per day to a skilled worker. At times, when they receive training in the production of items such as soaps, phenyl, printing presses, envelopes, etc., there is often no future avenue to practice these skills. This is both a short and long-term dead end which yield no positive result in terms of their rehabilitation. The focus shifts from instilling change, creating an employable citizen and facilitating reintegration, to simply enforcing work programmes with pitifully low wages.
The Green Way
What is a possible solution? Switching the concentration of rehabilitation programmes and training, to an area of work that has been begging for attention in plain sight; the Environment. Imagine a large and coordinated network across the nation designed not only to employ but also to develop inmates’ skills in sustainable activities and environmental protection. Assisting prison rehabilitation through environmental work not only focuses on the important cause of environmental work and protection but also rehabilitation of prisoners, providing viable options for reintegration into society. Dr Van Der Linden, a professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge, argues that “exposure to nature has also shown to promote cooperative behaviour and pro-social values [in inmates].”
A good example of the same is the collaborative effort launched by the State Department of Prisons and College of Agriculture at Pune’s Yerawada Central Prison. Here, 100 prison inmates received special and hands-on training in modern agricultural and farming techniques, along with the law-mandated minimum wage, at Rs. 201 per head. The college in return, gained men to tend to its experimental farms. Sanjay Phadtare, the Prison’s Technical Officer (Agriculture) explained, “Each day, about 30 inmates from Yerawada Central Prison’s open jail visit the fields. The prison’s department provides packed food to these inmates at the college. They work the fields the entire day, as per the requirement of the college. The college officials too impart hands-on training while they are at work.”
Several jails across the country have agriculture and environment-related practices. For instance, recently, the Directorate of Prisons and Correctional Services of Bhubaneshwar’s Balasore Central Jail decided to launch an organic farm over the five-acre agricultural land available on the jail premises.
While these programmes are largely geared towards agricultural practices first and sustainability second, there exist several programmes that concentrate on sustainability and detailed environmental protection. In countries like the U.S. and Australia, they have seen huge positive results.
“Green prison” programmes, for instance, have been shown to improve rehabilitation and reintegration with lower rates of re-conviction. In a joint effort between the Washington State Department of Corrections and Evergreen State College in the United States, scientists, students, inmates, and staff have been successfully brought together to implement projects for biodiversity conservation, science education and training, and prison sustainability improvement. These equipped inmates with science instruction, work abilities preparing, and community associations with individuals outside the jails.
These programmes not only offer education and job skills, but also a critical awareness of sustainable practices. The environmental movement gains students and advocates, while inmates gain access to education, skills, mechanisms of stress and anxiety reduction, and life-skills for the future. This work has also established relationships with staff and officers which have not only been instrumental in project implementation, but also in changing attitudes towards values of education, environmental conservation and sustainability, and human interactions, which resultantly changes the system of mass incarceration. A green programme conducted in a New York City prison showed marked reductions in rates of re-conviction as compared to the US national average.
Green Programmes in India?
However, this is still relatively new ground in India and requires many parameters to be fulfilled in order to be effective. Strong ties to education and training must be established to strengthen a permanent route to rehabilitation and cognitive training, as well as results. The programme must be voluntary and should ideally track post-release reintegration, to ensure complete success. It must also be cost-effective and utilise local training and community opportunities, as in the Australian case of collaboration with the aboriginals, to ensure stronger ties with the community. This will also help cement a long-term relationship to further longevity of the programmes, as well as an employment base.
These programmes have the potential to combat injustice within prisons and provide dignity, opportunities, meaningful education and eventual reintegration through important work that protects the environment. Dr Van Der Linden says, “experiments have shown that……the green program was significantly better for reducing risk-taking behaviour, cultivating better decision-making skills and improving overall psychosocial functioning”. While it may be a lofty task, it is the best way to ensure meaningful re-integration and create more impactful and involved citizens.
Featured image courtesy FRS