Huchappa, 49, a prison inmate, instructs us to wait outside the pen. He bleats, mimicking the creatures he tends to. The sheep run out as a fellow inmate, Ramakrishna, 48, unlocks the ramshackle door. Huchappa and Ramakrishna go chasing. The flock runs amok. This place doesn’t seem like a jail at all.
It’s hard to process the fact that Huchappa and Ramakrishna are convicted murderers. They stay with 41 other men in a natural landscape which makes for Koramangala Open Air Jail, Karnataka’s only open air jail. Nestled in Koramangala village, Devanahalli taluk, it is around 50km from Bangalore, the nearest main road being 6km away. This 114-acre jail was established in 1972. There are only a few such spaces in the country. Cherlapally Open Jail in Andhra Pradesh and Lalgola Open Air Correctional Home in West Bengal, to name a few.
Click here to view a slideshow of photos of the Koramangala Open Air Jail
All the inmates were convicted of murder a good many years ago and have, on an average, spent five-eight years in a central jail in the state. However, many became murderers accidentally. Chandra Naik, 39, is one such case. He was leading a political agitation and accidentally killed someone in the riot that ensued.
“Their good conduct over the years, mental and physical health, aptitude in a skill like sewing or farming, were noted by the prison authorities where they initially were,” says jailor K.T. Chikkathimmiah. “On the basis of these reports, the prisoners are picked and moved here,” he says. Here, the staff nurtures their skills and rehabilitates them to lead a normal life. Besides agriculture, horticulture, fisheries and dairying, the inmates also have a chance to upgrade their education.
In terms of staff, the prison has five head warders, two warders, two jailors and a superintendent. Two warders guard the two gates and keep a strict check on who enters and exits. The jail hasn’t had any incidents of jailbreak so far.
Inmates grow fruits such as mango, chikkus, guava and banana; grains such as maize, ragi, and toor dal; and vegetables such as potato, tomato, beetroot, radish and beans. Coconut and cashew plantations also occupy chunks of the acreage, apart from spaces allotted for dairy farming with cows and sheep. “We want these people to get back to a normal life. We help them build confidence by finding out what they are good at, and then allow them to pursue that interest,” says Chikkathimmiah. The prisoners are paid Rs20 a day.
One large room with several clothes lines and a television set makes for a living room of sorts. The jail also offers a library and reading material that inmates such as Naik have availed of. Of his 11 years in prison, Naik spent the first five years in Mysore Central Prison. Last year, he successfully finished a master’s degree in history via correspondence from the University of Mysore. He now wants to pursue a master’s in social work. Another inmate, Padmanabha, 39, who is at the moment out on parole, completed an MPhil in Kannada literature via correspondence from the same university.
Mehboob, 43, gets up from his post-morning-shift nap when we enter the prisoners’ room. He was doing time in Belgaum but is “much happier” after moving here two years ago. As we speak to him, other inmates gather around us. We ask them what they like doing in their spare time. “We like bhajans,” one of them mutters. Some play instruments such as the dhol and harmonium while others, such as Mehboob, sing.
What more do they want in the jail? “We want someone to sponsor a satellite dish for us. We want to watch more channels during our free time,” says Mehboob’s neighbour, Vidyanand, 40. All of them agree. So does the jailor.