From the prison

Last Updated: Sun, Oct 23, 2011 09:14 hrs

Giving prisoners a commercial space to showcase their skill, Tihar Jail has tied up with a mall in the capital.

On October 19, while shoppers flocked to Saket's Select Citywalk to wrap up their quota of Diwali shopping, a few curious ones walked into the mall's plaza and purchased spices, candles, lamps along with TJ's Crunch namkeen (a "hotseller" according to the stall manager) - all manufactured by the inmates of Tihar Jail (hence the name TJ's). In an initiative called "Redefining life behind bars", the prison has partnered with Select Citywalk to exhibit TJ's - a range of goods, including bakery products, handloom and textile, apparel, furniture, mustard oil, recycled hand-made paper products, paintings, jute bags and herbal products.

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Meena Joshi, 32, though initially a little sceptical about buying anything from the exhibition "because they were manufactured in a prison", finally decided to give the products a glance. "I've already bought three packets of TJ's Crunch and cookies for my children," she exclaims holding onto three shopping bags. The bakery products, claims one stall manager, are "selling like hot cakes". Other popular goods include hand-woven glass holders priced at Rs 50, spices (the masalas are ground by the inmates) costing Rs 18 to Rs 30 and handicrafts costing between Rs 50 and Rs 200. The food products are all ISO certified, say the jail authorities.

Neeraj Kumar, director general (prisons), Delhi, inaugurated the exhibition on October 19. "I have been chasing and arresting criminals for the better part of my life... now it's my moral duty to try and rehabilitate them," he says. After convincing the mall's director, Arjun Sharma, to visit Tihar, Kumar took him through the jail's infrastructure, machinery as well as the products. The plan worked and Sharma agreed to host the exhibition at his mall. "This is a great step to rehabilitate and reintegrate the prisoners into society," says Kumar. Along with keeping them occupied, the work also earns them a wage which they can send to their families. The wives of prisoners, says Kumar, are already doing their bit by marketing the products by word of mouth.

Describing the facilities inside the prison as "outstanding", Sharma recalls his visit. "There is a superstition that if you visit Tihar, you must eat a meal there, else you are bound to return for more notorious reasons," he laughs. Sharma insisted on having lunch with Kumar before leaving.

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While the products are sold through outlets outside Delhi courts, this is the first time they have been given a commercial space for exhibition as well as sale. The money from the sales will go to a government fund from which the inmates are allocated their daily wages. In the jail the inmates are also imparted basic computer skills so that they may be hired for clerical purposes. Around 90 inmates have already been hired by companies, including the Vedanta group, during placements at Tihar. The next placement season begins on November 15.

P K Tripathi, chief secretary, Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi, believes the initiative is "born with infinite possibilities". Tripathi says, "A prison is not just meant for punishment, but also reformation." Showcasing the artistry of the prison inmates in a commercial space might also help in removing the stigma attached to them.

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The 10 prisons in the city, which have a capacity of 6,200, house around 12,500 inmates of which 3,500 are convicts. Perhaps, the ideal way to keep them from committing crime is by tapping into their talent - something few prisons have accomplished. Referring to Tihar as a "modern" and "trendsetting" jail, the mall in Delhi has committed to a long partnership.

One can only hope that the exhibition isn't a one-off.

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