You forfeit your freedom the moment you step in and the huge door closes behind.
You then get stripped of your belongings one by one: the pen, the wrist watch, mobile phone and everything else. Stripped to the bone, a coarse khaki white dress with blue stripes is handed over to wear. You are then marched down to a dark cell at the end of a long corridor filled with the overpowering stench from an unattended toilet.
It isn’t the perfect setting for idling away some spare time. But the inconvenience is a small price to pay for being possibly the country’s first “jail tourist”.
Watch: How it feels to spend a day in this 220-year-old Telangana jail
Since the first week of August, the Old District Central Jail at Sangareddy town in Medak district of Telangana has opened its gates for tourists. For a ticket of Rs 500, tourists have the chance of getting a taste of prison life for a day. One gets to dress and eat like a prisoner besides seeing them from close.
But 60 kilometres away from the state capital of Hyderabad, Sangareddy isn’t exactly in the tourist circuit. The concept of holidaying in a jail has also not caught up and the 220-year-old prison now converted into a museum failed to attract a single visitor, until HT chose to take up the unprecedented offer last weekend.
State prison authorities say their “Feel the Jail” programme is a unique initiative aimed for those seeking a first-hand experience of life behind bars.
“If any tourist wants to experience the life of a prisoner, he has to give us prior intimation, so that we can make arrangements for his stay,” says deputy jail superintendent Santosh Kumar Roy.
The arrangement, when HT showed up at the gates, included bringing in 10 prisoners hastily from the nearby jail in Kandi on the Hyderabad-Mumbai highway to add authenticity to the Sangareddy prison.
The idea is to give a feel of what a prisoner undergoes inside a jail. “You will have to forgo all your freedom. You lose your contact with the rest of the world for the time you are locked up in the cell,” points out Roy.
The Sangareddy jail no more houses any prisoners after inmates were moved to the new complex at Kandi.
The prison is in a dilapidated state and the eight barracks designated for males are uninhabitable. One therefore has to settle for the sole female quarters irrespective of one’s gender. The jail authorities are also unprepared to host tourists. Though promising a 24-hour stay, no staff stays overnight at the premises, choosing to lock up the facility after dark.
Like an ordinary prisoner, a tourist is to get a dress, a few steel utensils, washing soap and a bed roll. The only concession the tourist gets that regular inmates don’t get is a ceiling fan in his cell.
The stay inside the cell isn’t very comfortable. Time passes slowly with only a few mosquitoes as company. Lunch was more forgettable.
Jail manual says lunch will include rice, rasam, pigeon pea, red gram dal and curd. But what was served included only coarse rice and a watery dal. “This is what we eat every day. We are used to it,” said Anjaiah, a prisoner. “For dinner, it will be just rice and rasam. That’s all.”
The prisoners brought in from the other jail went through their routine. They had tea around 3pm, then cleaned the premises and did a bit of gardening. At 5pm, they did yoga. They were then taken back to be locked up after an early dinner.
Before they headed back to their cells, one of them had a word of caution: “This ‘Feel the Jail’ scheme will likely flop. After tasting the jail food and doing the jail work, no tourist will ever come back or recommend others. Romanticising about jails is hardly a good idea.”