In what is perhaps the biggest change in Himachal Pradesh’s jails, 150 prisoners serving life sentences for heinous crimes are being allowed to leave the premises every day and go to work at private factories and business establishments.
The prisoners, including four women, walk down to their workplaces every morning in their respective towns and by sunset are diligently back to the barracks before evening roll-call.
They work in establishments such as restaurants, city saloons, coaching centres, and educational institutions.
There hasn’t been a single case of any of them fleeing or checking in after the gates are locked at night.
With more than 70 per cent of these inmates sole bread–earners, they have managed to send Rs 6,500 to Rs 8,500 home every month to feed their families and send their children to school.
One inmate was able to pay for her daughter’s wedding out of the savings she made from her wages. She also pays for a room she has rented near the prison for her two other school-going children as there is no one else to look after them.
An IITian is earning a respectable salary at a leading coaching academy. He is lodged at a district jail in connection with a 2011 case pertaining to the murder of his girlfriend, also an IIT student. He has earned laurels for developing advanced computer software for recruitment and an e-commerce website of the prisons department while undergoing his sentence.
From Himachali shawls to handloom products, inmates are making several branded goods as well. The list includes woolen socks, jackets, gloves and caps. They do tailoring work for garments, make furniture for offices, hotels and schools, and make waste newspaper envelopes as a replacement to banned polythene bags.
Trained by highly-skilled professionals at the Radisson Hotel, inmates have also specialised in preparing high-quality bakery products such as cookies, biscuits, pizzas, burgers, creamrolls, doughnuts and now the finest chocolates. These are sold as gifts on special occasions and festivals.
The highest demand for the products is from Shimla, where half a dozen outlets have opened by the Prisons Department, including one by the Himachal Pradesh High Court and government Secretariat.
Walk into the Book Café at landmark Takka Bench near Shimla’s Ridge, and you will be greeted by soft-spoken Jai Chand, 51, a smartly dressed gentleman who you will never think was a life-term jail inmate. Book Cafe is an unique concept promoted by the Shimla Municipal Corporation.
“This job has really changed my life and brought my soul back. I used to think jails were hell, but my outlook has changed drastically. If I ever get a chance to be released, I can certainly live an honourable life”, Chand told The Indian Express with a spark in his eyes.
Every morning, Chand gets up at 4 am, performs a puja and meditates before getting together a list of items to be taken to the Book Café for the day’s sale.
During the day, he serves tea, coffee, snacks and cold drinks to walk-in customers including students, literary figures, writers and high dignitaries. Among the most frequent customers is Justice Sanjay Karol, former Acting Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court and now Chief Justice of Tripura.
Chand’s son was recently selected for the Indian Navy through an All India competition. His three other children are studying. His wife takes care of them with the money Chand sends her.
The man behind the revolution and ‘har hath of kaam’ (a job for every hand) is Somesh Goyal, a journalist-turned-IPS officer, currently posted as the Director General Prisoners and Correctional services.
Goyal supervises every activity in jails, and holds one-on-one counselling sessions to review initiatives and individual performance of each convict.
He ensures inmates return home when on parole — few have gone home for the first time in over 10 years — and helps them solve their personal problems back home.
“There are four prime takeaways from my initiatives. Engaging inmates into gainful employments through skill upgradations, both inside prison and outside, is sole motive. There is a huge success,” he said.
Explaining the several advantages to his programme, Goyal said it allows convicts to be more relaxed and financially independent. The chances of them returning to a life of crime also reduces as it keeps them busy in productive jobs. Further, there is a huge benefit for the jail administration as it reduces conflicts in prison.
At a family level, as 46 per cent of the inmates are sole breadwinners, the wages help support their families. Finally, for society, their acceptability is acknowledged, Goyal added.
Goyal says, “Himachal Pradesh is the only state where the women prisoners are also working outside the jails. Three inmates who were trained as beauticians now work for leading saloons in Shimla town. Their children are being educated with the money earned.”
From an initial income of Rs 23 lakh earned from products made by the convicts, jails saw a profit of Rs 3.6 crore in 2018-19. This year, the target is Rs 5 crore.
Every inmate working outside has a bank account. The money earned by them goes directly to their accounts and can be accessed by their families, Goyal said.
There are 2,300 prisoners in jails across Himachal, 60 per cent of whom are undertrials and rest convicts.
According to Goyal, the annual turnover of wages per convict is Rs 40,000, which is over double of states like Haryana, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Maharastra (lowest Rs 9,745). “This is biggest satisfaction,“ he added.
One inmate, who hails from Lahaul-Spiti, established a bakery business at Keylong, a town which did not have a single bakery, after his release.
Mohammad Marqoob, serving a life term in an acid attack case in Mandi, said, “DPG Goyal sahib picked me up and helped me train as a tailor. Now, I have managed to divert my mind and also earn a living.”
The father of an 11-year-old, who hails from Bihar, works at the Kaithu jail bakery. He said, “I feel lucky. With my wages, I have put my son in a boarding school. It’s the biggest satisfaction I draw now.”
Ashwani Sharma is a Shimla based journalist and a former correspondent with The Indian Express.