The ‘Madras Penitentiary', one of the oldest in India and built in 1837 until it was renamed ‘Central Jail’ here in 1855, will be pulled down in a couple of days to make way for expanding the General Hospital, as the entire prison was shifted some time back to a more modern structure at suburban ‘Puzhal’.
As Tamil Nadu DGP Prisons, Mr R Nataraj, took a last look at the old majestic structure, which once housed freedom fighters like Veer Savarkar, and political leaders like late CN Annadurai, M Karunanidhi and Ms Jayalalithaa in the post-Independent era, in a gripping moment also recalled how there had been no “death by hanging” at this prison after 1970, thanks to a Presidential pardon to two prisoners then.
“Yes, penology is now shifting towards reform and rehabilitation of prisoners rather than mere punishment. But when we say reform, they think we (Police as law enforcing agency) are patronizing, trying to moralize; so our focus is on education of the inmates,” Mr. Nataraj told HT in Chennai, on the rationale of just having launched a new prison journal called ‘Ulloli’ (the inner light), by the prisoners and for all the prisoners in Tamil Nadu.
It is this enlightened self-regulated pedagogic process that has set in motion the first initiative of its kind in the country by the Tamil Nadu prison Department, a day after the DMK MP, Ms. Kanimozhi on Jan 15 took a presentation of the Tamil folk arts to the inmates of the ‘Puzhal prison’ as part of her ‘Chennai Sangamam’ festival-initiative. It is not just the arts, but freedom to express one’s thoughts would help ease prisoners’ pain.
“Except matters related to security, we welcome any constructive criticisms by the prisoners so that we can take remedial action. For instance, if the food is not good, let them say it,” Mr. Nataraj said, holding the first issue of the modest 30-page magazine with a picture of Mahatma Gandhi on its cover.
The Prison Department is only a catalyst, though Mr. Nataraj hit upon this idea last December. It is a collective effort by the inmates of Nine Central Jails in Tamil Nadu, which in all now houses 17,947 inmates including 1400 female prisoners. The monthly journal is in Tamil, though inmates are also allowed to write in English, as per the State’s official two-language policy. Printing charges are met from public donations.
Though thoughtful initiatives like “yoga training” for inmates and imparting of skills in handicrafts including handlooms are now part of prison activities, “it is not meant to be just a Prison Newsletter,” says Nataraj. “From the next issue, we in fact want the journal to be more interactive,” he said. Even the first issue’s layout was done by the inmates.
A nine-member ‘Editorial Board’, comprising prisoners from various Central Jails in the State, has been constituted and “Ulloli” will essentially be their baby. “May be they need some training in journalistic skills,” says Nataraj.
Interestingly, the Board includes a woman prisoner, Ms. Mary Xavier to make it gender-sensitive. At least one inmate convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi Assassination case lodged in the Vellore Jail, ‘Gundu’ Santhan, also sits on the Journal’s Editorial Board.
“Ulloli” is not meant to be just a vehicle for prisoners to pour out their angst, but also bring out their creative urges lying dormant. One remand prisoner, R. Sekar, in the ‘Puzhal’ jail has shown it by penning a verse in English titled, “Our Boss Is Our God”.
A short story, some poetic reflections on ‘Nature’, ‘Love’, drawings, a quiz-corner, ‘Thoughts for the Day’ and what have you, have all been packed into its first issue. “I am a book lover and very much in need of books. I was very much pleasantly surprised upon discovering that there is a library in the prison,” writes Piotr Gimik, a Polish remand prisoner at the Puzhal jail here, jotting down his “experiences as a Foreigner”.
The DGP hopes that the journal would not only open up new horizons for the prisoners’ self-improvement, but also “helps us in our Prison administration with less problems when inmates are kept engaged in any creative work.”