New Delhi: Inside a prison, a day can stretch out for decades—a daily struggle against the sameness of the hours and life on a square yard of space. The outside world knows nothing about those inside except through maybe a chance encounter with the prison files which contain mug shots of prisoners along with sketchy details such as age, name, address, and crime.
Unlike several other countries, Indian prisons have yet to institutionalize reform, leaving no space for documenting historical, psychological or social context to the life stories of these prisoners.
Guided by an anachronistic outdated British colonial law, the Prisons Act of 1894, life for an Indian prisoner means a crime, followed by punishment, leaving them ill-prepared for release into society.
Now, a forensic psychologist in Gujarat is trying to do things differently inside the Sabarmati Central Jail, Ahmedabad—assessing the behaviour of serious offenders and looking at different ways of reform—beyond piecemeal measures such as yoga, meditation and vocational skills.
“They are in the jail as a punishment for the crime they did. But what next? We can’t stop at that. They need to be shown the way to reform because ultimately they will go back to the society," says Reena Sharma, a forensic psychologist, who started a psychological counselling unit in Sabarmati jail in February.
Sharma, a 39-year-old PhD student of criminology at the Raksha Shakti University, Ahmedabad, with 15 years of work experience in psychological and forensic psychological therapies, started this unit after a two-month-long study of 110 prisoners—all arrested for serious crimes such as murder, rape or gangrape. The prisoners were examined for their readiness for treatment. Assessment results were used to get a needs-analysis, based on which an intervention plan was constructed. The idea of the unit now is to help prisoners deal with the reality of their crime, take responsibility, take control of their present life in prison, and in the process, prepare them for an integrated outside life when they are released.
“Almost all of them keep talking about the past and future. My efforts are to bring them to the present—basically to the aspect of their lives they have a control on," says Sharma.
Many of them deny having committed crime, while some justify their actions by saying they were provoked. “When it comes to offenders, we need to acknowledge their criminogenic needs (needs seen as causing criminal behaviour) and root causes before we start working with them. Keeping them in a terrible condition will not benefit our society. But we need to read the signs and see who has a potential and willingness to change," says Sharma.
There have been court rulings post Independence that have pointed to the need for prison reforms. One of the biggest came in October 2014, when the Delhi high court in the Bharat Singh vs State of NCT (national capital territory of Delhi) specifically dealt with the subject of reforming prisoners, and stressed the need for testing who is ready to be reformed.
Passing a slew of directions on prison reforms, the Supreme Court too directed all state governments in September 2017 to appoint counsellors and support personnel for counselling prisoners.
As per the Prison Statistics India 2015 report by the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 419,623 jail inmates as of December 2015. Of them, 5,203 inmates have mental illness, accounting for 1.2% of the total.
“Given the lack of opportunities for prisoners in India to relearn adaptive coping mechanisms and progress towards change, the rate of repeat offenders is high and they often get stuck in a vicious cycle of committing crime," said Sharma.
As of now it is too early to judge the impact of this initiative, but as T.S. Bisht, DG, Prison and Correctional Administration, Gujarat State, said, “A structured and holistic approach like this has a potential to help and reform prisoners."