As a new jail superintendent at the Jodhpur Jail, Radhakant Saxena recalls his surprise when, upon his entry, all 1100 prisoners sat on their haunches with hands outstretched. “It was my first posting as jail superintendent. When I asked my staff, they said this posture was for my safety so that none of the prisoners would attack me,” said the benign Saxena.
He asked his staff to put an end to the practice. “If the prisoners attacked me, it would be because of some fault of mine.” The year was 1963.
With those words, he set out to reform the prison system in Rajasthan. Saxena, now 77, is widely credited with transforming the prison system, according a level of dignity to all prisoners. Winning the trust of the prisoners was the first step. “You only have to prove that you are just and honest. If the staff take bribes from the prisoners, how can they expect any respect?” he asked.
Saxena ushered in changes such as letting prisoners study, even attend classes in college and giving them access to books in jail. Did his efforts help improve the lives of some individuals?
“I’m a living example,” says Sunil Agarwal (name changed), when asked if reforms should be pushed. With Saxena’s help, many individuals went on to become teachers or set up small businesses, he added. The mild-mannered Agarwal was only 16 when he was convicted of murder in a land dispute. He was sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to the Jaipur jail where Saxena was posted. There, Saxena motivated him to study, brought him books, even gave him a special diet. Agarwal completed his graduation and post graduation and got a law degree while still in jail. After being released, he joined the Rajasthan Cooperative Department and now practises in the Rajasthan High Court.
In Udaipur, Jodhpur Mishthan Bhandar is a well-known sweet shop. What is perhaps less known is that the owner, Kalu Ram Parihar, was convicted of murder and served time in jail. “Going to jail made my life,” he says. A somewhat unusual statement but true in his case.
Convicted for murder when he was 17, Parihar was given a 20-year sentence. “I told Saxena I had been a mechanic in Jodhpur and he set up a scooter repair shop for me near the jail premises.” After being released, he opened his first sweet shop in 1987. Today his net worth is about Rs. 20 crore.
Saxena, who was a director in the All India Committee on Jail Reforms from 1980-82, initiated efforts to stop the practice of putting handcuffs and heavy shackles on the feet of prisoners. He encouraged prisoners to study and arranged books through charitable organisations. “I used educated prisoners as resource persons and got them to teach other inmates.”
Today, 20 years after having retired from his job, Saxena still fights on. He is associated with organisations such as the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and is vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). Kavita Srivastava, PUCL general secretary, said he had been critical in the revival of the organisation in Rajasthan. He has conducted various workshops for CHRI on improving the prisoner visiting system, decongesting prisons, sensitisation about child protection laws for judicial magistrates; members of special juvenile police units ; and children’s welfare committees, as well as speeding up the process for undertrials.
He is also working with the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment to push officials to improve conditions in juvenile homes. He is carrying out a study, funded by Save the Children, an NGO, of two juvenile homes in Ajmer and Tonk. “The system is complex, but as long as I am able to help even one person, I’m satisfied,” said Saxena. His achievements within and without the system have been many, but surely fighting the bureaucratic system to bring in reforms couldn’t have been easy? “The slow pace of official correspondence suited me,” he said with a gentle laugh.