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A tale of two jails

Though just ten miles separate the Sanganer Open Camp and the Jaipur Central Jail, they are actually worlds apart.

india Updated: Jun 04, 2006 15:14 IST

Standing under a pitiless Rajasthan sky, Peet Ram Choudhary shows us his house. A plot 30 feet square, half of which is taken up by a room. There is a TV, a cooler, a two-in-one and even a handheld game console.

Peet Ram, 40, stays here with wife Saroj and sons Nitin, 14, and Amit, 11. Both the sons have scored above 75 per cent at school, the proud father tells us, and launches into a sermon on studies. The sons are saved by the bell -- Peet Ram is running late.

He has to cycle 7 km to the Dhunseri Tea packaging centre, where he works as a guard, drawing Rs 4,000.

A regular family scene. Except for the fact that Peet Ram is a lifer, a former BSF sepoy who is in jail for the murder of his cousin.

His `house' is plot number 99 in the Sanganer Open Camp. After serving the first seven years of his term in the Jaipur Central Jail, he shifted to the camp two years ago and brought in his family.

He has to be present in the camp between 7 pm and 6 am; at other times, he is free to move anywhere within 10 km from the camp.

Visiting relatives can stay overnight at his place. Four unarmed constables take turns to watch over the 10-acre land that houses Peet Ram and 163 other prisoners at the camp (including 17 women), almost all of them serving time for murder.

Best face of reformative justice started

In 1963, Sanganer is the oldest and largest open camp in India and the country's best face of reformative justice. It's a model where well-behaved prisoners who have served more than a third of their life sentences are sent.

It isn't a system of uniformed gangs under the charge of a warder, popular around the world and immortalised here by V Shantaram's film Do Ankhein Bara Haath. Here, the prisoners are free to choose their own livelihood.

The idea is to avoid them "going in as graduates of crime and coming out as PhDs", as Justice MN Venkatachaliah, former Chief Justice of India and chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), had called the products of the reigning prison system. It is to give them a chance to adjust back after being locked up for years.

At the Sanganer camp, prisoners build their own four walls or buy tenements for a few thousand from those going out.

Many from the camp commute to work on their own two-wheelers; one drives a tractor. While there are doctors, teachers and business owners among them, most are employed at the construction and quarry industries of the town. A panchayat takes care of the inmates' petty problems.

Anil Sharma, 40, a former sarpanch of the Sanganer camp, makes his living as a homeopathic doctor and the owner of a construction outfit. Originally from Alwar, Sharma wants to stay back in Sanganer or Jaipur when released. His next goal is to get his brother married. He says, "My father spent some Rs 5 lakh on my sister's marriage. How will our stature go up if I can't spend a few lakhs more?"

By one count or another, just about everyone associated with the Sanganer system -- administrators, reform activists, prisoners and their employers -- agree about the model's success. For the understaffed administration, open camps incur little cost compared to the Rs 2,000-plus that has to be spent every month on every convict in prison.

The votaries of reformative justice get a working model. The prisoners get a semblance of a life. Peet Ram's employer and others like him get "well-behaved employees not given to absenteeism".

Albeit, the model is not without its problems: one or two camp inmates take advantage of the lax rules every other year and flee. But JK Sharma, inspector-general of jails in Rajasthan, brushes that aside as a minor problem.

Closed minds on open jails

Despite such obvious positives, there are only 24 such open prisons in 12 states of the country.

In Rajasthan, which has as many as 10 such institutions, the open camp population is 427 -- about a thirtieth of that in that state's 104 prisons and 6 per cent below the open camps' capacity.

This is in spite of the long queue of eligible prisoners. The picture is much the same elsewhere. The NHRC has noticed underutilisation of open camps in most places. Why?

Open camps are the step-child of the government's lowly `civil defence' system. Out of the Rs 1,840-crore outlay for jail modernisation under the Tenth Plan, nothing is earmarked for open camps.

There is a proposal to increase Sanganer's capacity to 200 and build three new open camps, but it is yet to move through several desks.

According to the state rules, of the six people who should sit and decide on the prisoners to be moved to open camps, one is supposed to be a psychologist.

Rajasthan, with one of the more progressive jail administrations in the country, hasn't had a prison psychologist for at least 15 years.