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Open jails are a great idea, but why do we not want more of them?

Only 4 of the 63 open jails in the country accept women.

Updated: Jun 29, 2018, 22:33 PM IST

48-year-old Manoj Jha today is a reformed and a confident person. No one, including him, can believe that he had been in jail for almost 14 years. At the last leg of his punishment as a life convict, he was sent to the Hoshangabad Open Jail in Madhya Pradesh, bringing in major changes in his life. With 22 inmates in the open jail, he started his own venture as a contractor. Joined by three more inmates from the jail in his venture, they started going out of the jail on a daily basis and very soon, started earning almost Rs 1 lakh a month. Today, Manoj Jha is seen as a symbol of success of open jails in India. This is crucial in light of the ongoing debate on the need of open jails.

The inhumane conditions of 1382 prisons in India have forced the Supreme Court of India to intervene. Taking into account the study conducted by the Rajasthan Legal Services Authority on open prisons, and recommendations in the report prepared by activist Smita Chakraburtty, further brought into focus by amicus curiae Gaurav Agarwal, the need for having more open spaces in prisons is now gaining prominence. 

During the hearing of a writ petition in December 2017, the Supreme Court of India directed Ministry of Home Affairs to send a communication to all states/UTs asking for their response to the idea of open prisons - whether they are willing to set up open prisons, and the manner in which open prisons could be operated. A time period of four weeks was fixed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, in October 2017. In pursuance of these meetings, BPR&D has convened several meetings, the latest one in February-end, to recommend uniform guidelines for the administration of open jails throughout the country. 

Ironically, of the 63 open jails in the country, only 4 accept women inmates at all. Yerawada Open Jail and the Women's Open Prison in Trivandrum are exclusively for women, while Durgapura and Sanganer Open Camps in Rajasthan take in a few women inmates. The other 59 open prisons in India have no provision for accommodating women inmates. It seems that in some states, women are in fact explicitly barred in the admission criteria to open prisons, believing that the presence of women may lead to some complexities.

An open prison differs from the ordinary prisons in four respects - in structure (affecting organization and administration), in role systems (affecting work and interaction in everyday life), in normative systems (affecting social restrictions and expectations guiding behaviour), and in value orientations (affecting conduct and training).

In India, the first open prison was started in 1905 under the Bombay Presidency. The prisoners were selected from the special class prisoners of Thane Central Jail, Bombay. However, this open prison was closed in 1910. The state of Uttar Pradesh established the first open prison camp in 1953 for the construction of a dam over Chandraprabha River near Benaras (now Varanasi).

After completing this darn, the prisoners of the open camp were shifted to a nearby place for constructing the dam over Karamnasa River. The third camp was organised at Shahbad for digging a canal.

Encouraged by the success of these temporary camps, a permanent camp was started on March 15, 1956 at Mirzapur with a view to employing prisoners on the work of quarrying stones for Uttar Pradesh government cement factory at Churk, Mirzapur. The initial strength of prisoners in this camp was 150 which went up to 1,700 but has now come down to 800. Another permanent camp, called Sampurnanad Shivir, was established in 1960 at Sitarganj in Nainital district in Uttar Pradesh.

At the time of its establishment, Sampurnanand camp had 5,965 acres of land but later on, another 2,000 acres of reclaimed land were handed over to the Uttar Pradesh government for the rehabilitation of displaced persons. At present, thus, the Sitarganj camp has 3,837 acres of land and is one of the largest open prisons in the world.

Prisoners selected for the camp from different jails of the state are transferred to district jail, Bareilly, from where they are shifted to the camp.

With 149 prisons in India facing an overcrowding of more than 150%, it may be added that open prisons need to be restructured, recognized and implemented. Open prisons must be established in all those states where they do not exist at present.

(Vartika Nanda is a prison reformer and a media educator. She is the founder of the Tinka Tinka Project, which aims at bringing change in the lives of jail inmates. She received the Stree Shakti Puraskar for 2013 from the President of India for her contribution in creating awareness on women's issues.)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)