Smita Chakraburtty has spent most of her adult life in and out of prisons. In fact, it is the photographs of Smita flanked by the prisoners of the Sanganer Open Prison near Jaipur—the Shri Sampoornananda Khula Bandi Shivir—that drew me to her story.

“An open prison is a prison without bars," states the 34-year-old independent researcher plainly. In the Sanganer Open Prison, inmates, most of them convicted for murder, live with their families in independent homes on the campus. There are no prison walls and inmates go out to work every day. All that is required of them is to be present at attendance in the morning and evening, and to live peacefully.

The Sanganer Open Prison was established in 1963 by a team lead by R.K. Saxena, the then superintendent of jails. Saxena believes it is the duty of the prison system to return the inmates to society as functional, responsible persons at the end of their sentence.

“It is a successful and humane experiment that has been present right in front of our eyes and yet it has been invisible to us," says Smita, who has been appointed the honorary commissioner of prisons, Rajasthan, by the Rajasthan State Legal Services Authority headed by Justice K.S. Jhaveri as executive chairman.

“I was first invited to Rajasthan by the then director general of prisons, Ajit Singh, who confided that he had a peculiar situation on his hands. Prisoners who had completed their prison sentences in the Sanganer Open Prison were refusing to leave. Some of them were threatening to go on hunger strike.

“When I met the prisoners, they begged me to get their stay extended. They had worked so hard and diligently at creating their livelihood in the open prison that being released was feeling like a forceful eviction to them.

“You have a fantastic thing happening here, I reported to Ajit Singh. The prisoners don’t want to leave the prison. You must have done something extremely correct," says Smita.

Smita’s report, and suggestions for improvement and expansion of open prisons, have been taken cognizance of by the Supreme Court, which has directed the Union home affairs ministry to work with state governments to evolve a uniform policy and establish more open prisons.

“The advocacy work for open prisons has to be done on a war footing," says Smita. “We have to tell the success stories. The stories of humanity and transformation."

“Where does your own story start?" I ask. “What inspired you to spend so much time amongst inmates?"

“I grew up in school hostels," says Smita. “My parents were divorced when I was very young and I never really had a home to return to like other children. I was in a strict convent environment in the sleepy town of Chandernagore and later came to Kolkata for higher studies."

As a student of Presidency College, Smita got involved in the civil society protests to support displaced farmers against forcible land acquisition in Singur by the state of West Bengal on behalf of Tata Motors. Many student activists were arrested and she first encountered custodial violence and the harsh brutality of the prison system when she went to visit them. As a student of sociology, Smita began to research the state of prisons for her own postgraduate dissertation.

“An elderly prisoner requested me for a pair of spectacles. Some of them would chide me for not having visited for so long. I realized many prisoners had no visitors at all. They longed for a simple conversation, a gentle voice. For once I felt wanted.

“At some level, I identified with their abandonment. With the confinement," says Smita in a moment of candour. “I didn’t have any family either. I know what it means to be unwanted and homeless."

Although she was encouraged by her own mentors when she proposed to study the state of political prisoners for her PhD, she faced resistance at the University of Calcutta. After a short teaching stint at Loreto College, Kolkata, Smita chose to become an independent researcher.

As her reputation grew, she was invited to conduct an independent study of Bihar’s prisons by Justice V.N. Sinha, the second most senior judge of the Patna high court and executive chairman of the Bihar State Legal Services Authority.

“I visited all the 58 prisons in Bihar and spoke to 30,070 inmates. I had the mandate to enter every ward, stay as long as I needed to, even after sundown, and inspect every aspect of the living conditions. My final report, titled ‘Prisons Of Bihar: Status Report—2015’, is an extensive documentation of the lack of medical facilities and legal access for prisoners, the incarceration of juveniles alongside adults in jails, forced labour, extrajudicial punishments and the appalling situation of women in prisons."

The National Human Rights Commission and the Parliamentary standing committee took cognisance of this report and the Supreme Court has made these type of inspections mandatory for all prisons.

“Did you feel safe inside prisons?" I ask.

“In some places, the prison staff had laid bets on how long I would last. But the prisoners realized that I had come to represent them. They made it their concern to ensure my safety and well-being."

Smita reiterates that the point of imprisonment is to reform, not foster criminalization.

I bring up the recent ordinance on death penalty for rape of girls below 12 . “The demand for the death penalty is society’s emotional response to a crime. It is a populist response. We cannot afford to misinterpret justice as revenge," says Smita.

She reports that there is no incidence of domestic violence in the open prison in Sanganer, in sharp contrast to the statistics from homes outside the prison. The open prison has a crèche and daycare for children, which is also used by working parents from outside the prison premises. All the inmates are either employed according to their experience and qualifications or are self-employed in small businesses. They pay their own bills. Inmates are governed by a Bandi panchayat, a governing body of prisoners.

“Open prisons are not only humane as a system, they are also cheaper," says Smita. “While the monthly cost per prisoner in Jaipur Central jail is Rs7,000, it is only Rs500 in the Sanganer Open Prison. These are the results when people’s agency is restored to them. The identity of being a prisoner is punishment enough for those who have been convicted. We know that people behave as they are treated. Open prisons should be the norm, and closed prisons the exception."

Smita Chakraburtty knows there is a long road ahead before we see the results of the implementation of her research and recommendations. “The more it feels futile, the more urgent it is to keep persisting at what we know is right," she says.

“What keeps you going?" I ask.

“I seem to have a wanderlust for prisons," she says and laughs. “This work has been very empowering for me. I have received support from my foster families and from people within the system who have believed in me. In a sense, I have found a home where I feel I belong."

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.

She tweets at @natashabadhwar

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