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It’s a scene you’ve seen in countless Indian movies, never mind the language. The hero or villain bends and steps in through a small door in a giant gate, the first step to serving his prison sentence. But it’s still a bit surreal when you have to do it yourself, never mind that it is on a visit to find out about the revamped reforms programme at Bangalore’s Parappana Agrahara Central Jail, and not because you’ve been arrested. This is the jail that once held former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa and fake stamp paper-scam accused Abdul Karim Telgi. Having recorded our names, surrendered our mobile phones and had our wrists stamped with the jail seal, we are ushered into the jail superintendent’s office. Streamers left over from Diwali still hang from the ceiling, while the corridors have men in white uniform or casual clothes, depending on whether they are undertrials or convicts.
“Earlier we focused more on regulating prisoners, and had the traditional industries like carpentry and soap-making but we have now diverted to more creative activities like baking and theatre,” says Krishna Kumar, the jail superintendent, the man overseeing the 4,084 prisoners at the central jail. Thus, since last March, the prisoners have been baking bread, biscuits and buns, and making sweets like laddoos, which are sold under the brand name “Parivartana” (meaning change) through mobile vans that traverse the city. The bakery goods and sweets see sales of Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 a day and retail at less than the market price. Around half the revenue is profit, which goes to the government treasury. The bakery is at one corner of the prison, and baking operations are supervised by Parameshwar, serving his sentence for murder. It would be an exaggeration to say activities like these have transformed their lives but Parameshwar acknowledges that it has made life inside prison more bearable. “It distracts me and keeps me from thinking about my family all the time,” says the 42-year-old, who has already served seven years of his sentence. Those working also earn Rs 50 a day, which they send to their families. Parameshwar says he might use his newly acquired skills to open a bakery once he is released, as his family already runs a juice shop in Bangalore. Around 200 prisoners have so far been trained in baking. Another 60-70 prisoners are being trained in garment-making, particularly shirts. A group is hunched over what looks like brand new sewing machines. “We need to achieve standardisation, before we begin retailing, which might happen in a couple of months,” says Kumar. The clothes will be sold under the cleverly named “Jail Bird” brand. The jail authorities are considering approaching Kannada film-stars to endorse the brand. I suggest Darshan, the actor imprisoned briefly on charges of assaulting his wife, might be a good candidate but Kumar laughs and says maybe he would have been if he had not been arrested. Kesaram, another accused in a murder case, is one of those being trained in garment-making and says it helps to pass the time, which would otherwise have been spent loitering or watching TV. Other initiatives include an acting programme with theatre company, Sankalpa, inter-prison sports meets with winners getting trophies and certificates and a yoga programme with Sri Sri Ravishankar’s ashram, under which 1,500 inmates have been trained so far.
These and other initiatives were launched under the encouragement of the ADGP (prisons), K V Gagandeep, who took charge on September 9 last year. “Before this, I used to send people to jail but had no idea what went on beyond the prison walls,” he says. The first few months of his new assignment were spent familiarising himself with the system, which he saw had resulted in low morale among prison officials and prisoners. Recruitment and pending promotions took care of the first, while a more ambitious programme was launched for the others. The aim of the new initiatives, says the 1986 batch Karnataka cadre IPS officer, was also to provide prisoners some kind of vocational training which they would be able to use once they were released. “Also, an idle mind is a devil’s workshop, so we need to keep the prisoners busy,” he adds. Initially there was scepticism among the officers about the programmes and the prisoners too were not very enthusiastic but that, he says, is gradually changing.
At another prison in Devanahalli, 500 kg of organic vegetables are being grown on 113 acres. There is also a dairy farm and piggery in the same prison, and sericulture has just been started. Being a music lover, Gagandeep has also bought and donated instruments to train prisoners in Mysore and Gulbarga for jail orchestras which he says might play at the Dussehra festivities next year. Next on the cards is opening a shop in Gandhi Nagar which will retail the sweets and other goods made by the inmates, and which is scheduled to open as soon as the jails minister inaugurates it. The jail’s theatre members have performed plays at venues outside as well, including Raveendra Kalakshetra in the city. But wasn’t he ever worried that the prisoners might make use of the chance to escape? “Well, I asked one of the prisoners if he would run away and he replied that if he did, who would enact his role?” Gagandeep laughs.