Feature story

Behind bars, a social balm to heal and calm

Social workers are the agents of reconciliation and change in a path-breaking pilot project aimed at making Maharashtra’s prisons a more humane place

Hemant Yadav is hurting and it’s not merely the pain of being in prison that is causing him distress. Arrested on a child kidnapping charge, the 30-year-old migrant from Unnao in Uttar Pradesh has a degenerative spinal condition that flared up during the nearly two years he has spent in jail as an undertrial. In a wheelchair and unable to walk, barely literate and with no family to count on, Mr Yadav has been reduced to little more than a statistic as his case winds its way through India’s tortuous criminal justice system.

Lending a hand to inmates like Mr Yadav is central to the objectives of a path-breaking pilot project designed and implemented by the Tata Trusts in partnership with the Prisons Department of the Maharashtra government. Initiated in February 2017, the programme has a simple and fundamental premise: the necessity of making jails more humane, a place where those deprived of their liberty are treated ethically and with empathy.

The chosen method to get there is by the placing of social workers inside jails to make it easier and more effective for the state to fulfil its responsibilities towards the imprisoned. Mr Yadav, lodged at Taloja Central Jail in Navi Mumbai, would certainly benefit from some attention. He needs spinal surgery for a disorder deemed critical, money for treatment, and the means to post bail that has already been granted. “I don’t want to remain bedridden,” he says with a forlorn look. “I wish there’s a cure for me.”

Ketan Jawade’s circumstances are not as dire but that’s not how he sees it. Once employed as a driver in Mumbai, he is now an undertrial charged with murder and has been in Taloja for more than two years, during which time he has been produced in court on a single occasion. “I’ve been trapped in a false case,” says Mr Jawade, 32, a swarthy man with the bearing of someone who knows the jail and its rules, written and unwritten. “I have no lawyer and I’m cut off from my family. I have no hope.”

‘I feel terribly depressed’

Dilip Chavan is slightly less bleak in his outlook. Accused of robbery and yet another undertrial, he has been behind bars for eight months. An orphan who grew up working in brickkilns, the 25-year-old Mr Chavan was arrested the day after his wife gave birth to their third child. “I feel terribly depressed,” he says. “I don’t get much sleep and I cannot keep the turmoil out. If I get released, I’ll go back to my village.”

The social worker plays the dual role of facilitator and pivot (in the prisons programme)

Mr Yadav, Mr Jawade and Mr Chavan have all benefitted from the experiment of having social workers in the prison system. Mr Yadav got help with his bail application and could receive financial assistance for the treatment he so desperately needs. Thanks to a health intervention run under the project, Mr Jawade is rid of a chronic skin condition he picked up in jail. Mr Chavan’s wife and kids have been provided with rations and clothes, and he may well find the private lawyer he requires to properly argue his case.

The prisons programme incorporates five broad areas for intervention: health, legal aid, connecting inmates with their families, rehabilitation of the released, and vocational training. Besides these, it offers financial and other assistance to the families of inmates, taps into existing government schemes to help them, and advocates with state agencies while demonstrating the efficacy of having social workers dedicated to the task of prisoner welfare.

The programme has been rolled out in five central jails and at the Nashik borstal school (an educational and correctional institution for inmates in the 18-23 age group). There are 19 social workers attached to the project, two to each prison and separately for men and women. To say they have their hands full would be an understatement, given the endemic overcrowding in these jails and the consequent rush of requirements.

On the health front, the programme has medical camps and more to tackle, in particular, the skin and dental problems that are commonplace in prisons. The project provides unwell inmates with appropriate treatment and medicine, arranges doctor visits to jails, gets terminally ill prisoners released, has gynaecologists conducting sessions for women inmates, and organises first-aid training for jailors and the jailed.

Legal aid is an issue that cuts to the heart of the prison system and, with the huge proportion of undertrials behind bars, the need for it is immediate and crucial. The project has connected with the government’s ‘district legal services authorities’ to improve the quality of lawyer representation for undertrials and in securing bail for them.

Money is, predictably enough, a powerful lubricant in smoothening the delivery of justice (not for nothing is it said, only half in jest, that capital punishment is reserved for those without capital). The vast majority of undertrials waiting for their day in a court of law are poor and most of them are illiterate or minimally educated.

Undertrials (or inmates awaiting trial) comprise a giant chunk of India’s prison population. The numbers tell a shocking story: 67% of those behind bars in the country are undertrials and the figure is worse for Maharashtra (71%). The bulk of these unfortunates are from the margins of society and they are sitting ducks for exploitation. In the context, timely and effective legal aid is essential to prevent them from getting lost in the maze of India’s dysfunctional judicial system.

Keeping inmates in contact with their families is another key component of the programme. It’s not unusual for families to lose touch with, or give up on, their people. This can be devastating for inmates who lack the resources and the spirit to tough it out on their own in a menacing and unforgiving ecosystem. The efforts of the social workers have frequently resulted in sunshine stories emerging from the debilitation, physical and psychological, that detention induces.

Rehabilitation support

The rehabilitation element in the project focuses on supporting released inmates through financial assistance, linking them to after-care organisations, utilising government schemes to their advantage and working with the police to prevent a return to jail. The vocational courses run inside the jails contribute by enhancing the opportunities released inmates have for a reintegration into society.

A legal awareness session for women prisoners in Nashik jail

The progress made by the prisons project has not been without hiccups, notably during its initial phase. The push back from the existing order was pronounced and the project itself had to be rejigged as the realities of prison life became more apparent. “We began by building bridges with the prison authorities, but there were teething troubles to be overcome,” says Mangala Honawar, who is leading the prisons initiative for the Tata Trusts.

There was the necessity, too, of going beyond what had been envisioned on paper. “Our first insight was that the project required more,” says Ms Honawar, whose experience of India’s prison system stretches back to 2006, when she was a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). “We had to consider categories other than men, women and children. That meant making space for the mentally distressed, for youth, the disabled and the aged.”

The social worker plays the dual role of facilitator and pivot while trying to ensure that inmates can access the services they are legally entitled to. It’s not that the jail staff are cold to the plight of prisoners. Burdened by a heavy workload and the sheer numbers of those they have to keep in line, they are not equipped to do it all. “Rehabilitation of prisoners into society, for example, is not a task the system can accomplish without outside help,” says Ms Honawar.

The services due to prisoners have to converge and the social worker is important in making that happen. “This is full-time work and it has to be embedded in the system,” explains Ms Honawar. “There are 150-200 jailors in charge of anywhere up to 5,000 prisoners at any given time. This does not make for a secure or sustainable equation. By denying prisoners their humanity, you worsen their punishment and that does nobody any good.”

There’s a three-year time frame for the prisons project and the goal is to, by then, institutionalise the idea of social workers within jails. “The object is to have a cadre of social workers involved with prisoners on the inside and their families on the outside, but ultimately they have to be government appointees,” says Ms Honawar. “I believe the government understands that it has to take ownership of the programme. And there will have to be more than two social workers in each jail, of course.”

The way it is set up, the prison system treats incarceration as punishment — and societal retribution — rather than as a pathway to rehabilitation. Laypeople on the outside are largely indifferent to, even oblivious of, the inequities such a system perpetrates. That makes it difficult for change, much less reform, to take hold. But the intent and the commitment to make change possible are clear, from the top rungs of the administration to the jailors, the people at the vanguard in any prison.

The human touch

“What our prisons lack is the human touch,” says Rajvardhan Sinha, Maharashtra’s inspector general (prisons), who has been associated with the project since its inception. “Our biggest problem is overcrowding and the reason is the number of undertrial inmates we have. Our biggest challenge is infrastructure and that is connected to overcrowding. Limited resources mean our jails are like rat houses.”

Mr Sinha is convinced about the worth of the prisons project, though he is cautious about reaching conclusions in a hurry. “The start was slow but [the social workers] have learned and they have proved their usefulness. The concept is absolutely good and this is different from any other kind of social work. However, it is premature to evaluate the impact it has actually made on the inside. We need more time and we need more social workers.”

Prison reform is, in Mr Sinha’s view, vital in the context. That translates into courts in jails, alternative punishments, rehabilitation and, crucially, a different approach towards women and children.

The collaborative aspect of the project is what Nayantara Sabavala, director of programme design at the Tata Trusts, is keen to emphasise. “We have tried to show the government — successfully, I think — that we are all part of the system,” she explains. “We don’t sit in judgment. Our approach is to say that these are our common issues. The question is: how can we, together, come up with solutions and resolve them?”

The prisons programme grew out of an initiative called Prayas, which took shape nearly two decades back as a TISS project and has been supported by the Tata Trusts ever since. “Prayas pioneered this work and they are our technical partners,” says Ms Sabavala, under whose watch the current programme was seeded. “We would not have been able to do this without them.”

The team of 24 involved with the initiative is just as definite about what the prisons programme has brought to the fore, and about its future potential. “This is probably the first time such an exercise has been carried out in an Indian prison setup,” says Ms Honawar. “We have learned from our missteps and we know we cannot change everything. I’m certain that putting social workers inside jails on a permanent basis would be invaluable.”

The 15,556 inmates in Maharashtra’s prisons are likely to agree.

Call of the cell

A vocational training course being conducted at the Nashik borstal school (a correctional institution for young inmates)

We see prisoners, first and foremost, as human beings; we don’t make moral judgements about their criminality,” says Arun Sawant with a conviction born of experience. One of the social workers in the Tata Trusts prisons programme, Mr Sawant is sure about what the jailed are in search of. “Most of all, they want you to hear their story. And we are there to listen. That’s how we win their confidence and build a relationship.”

Claretto Fernandes, a 40-year-old undertrial charged with kidnapping and murder, certainly wants to be heard. “The social workers are a help in many ways, simply because the difficulties prisoners face are many,” he says. Mr Fernandes, an officer in the merchant navy prior to his arrest three years back, points to overcrowding as the root cause that makes prisons such unliveable places. “A particularly pressing issue is the shortage of guards to escort us to courts. That means we miss on case hearings, which by themselves are delayed.”

Mr Sawant, who has a masters in social work and aspires to be a lawyer, is not inclined to mince words when describing the conditions behind bars. “There is no peace for prisoners,” he says. “The world inside an Indian prison today is about 50 years behind the times. The environment is not built for kindness or understanding. And prisons can be a university for wannabe criminals.”

Learning to cope with the multiple challenges prisons can pose has not been easy for Mr Sawant and his colleagues. “We were treated with suspicion initially but that phase is over,” says Sandeep Dighe, another social worker in the programme. “We have tried to prove our worth through our work, and it’s hard work. The load is heavy and I get depressed sometimes but I’ve learned to live with that. The flip side is that I get a good night’s sleep with every small victory.”

The victories have added up for Mr Dighe, a soft spoken and determined young man. “In the early days of the job, there were four cases of attempted suicides at Taloja, where I was posted; this year there hasn’t been a single such incident. The reason for these attempts by prisoners is a loss of hope — mainly due to their families cutting them adrift — and hope is what we try to rekindle. The despair extends to the jailors as well. They, too, are victims of the system.”

The way the social workers evaluate their work is simple: how have the prisoners benefitted from their efforts? “Social
workers are essential in a prison; our work proves that and this pilot will reinforce the point,” says Mr Sawant. “I have no doubt that government-appointed social workers will become a reality at some point in the future. And the sooner it happens the better.”

The names of the prisoners in this article have been changed to protect their identity.