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Jailbird for a day

Ayesha Minhaz | Updated on February 16, 2018 Published on February 16, 2018

The Sangareddy jail was built on an expanse of 3.1 acres in 1796, when Salarjung-I was the prime minister of the state of Hyderabad.

Isolation, please: Samrat Rangu, a 29-year-old software engineer from Hyderabad, visited in 2016

Tied and tested: The iron loops were used to bind the hands and feet of inmates, as punishment for wrongful behaviour inside the prison premises   -  Image: Ayesha Minhaz

Stark visuals: Over two dozen paintings line the corridors of the Heritage Jail Museum in Sangareddy district. While some depict scenes of crime and punishment from ancient India and Europe, others are illustrations of the modern Indian Penal Code

A 222-year-old jail in Telangana is seeing a flurry of visitors willing to pay for a taste of prison life and, in the process, contemplate the meaning of life and freedom

A worn, rectangular stone inscribed with the number 100 and the rusty iron rings fixed to it send a chill down our spine. A placard informs us that it is a 100-kg stone that was used to punish convicts who committed rape, murder or criminal assaults inside prison — they were chained to the stone and then made to haul it on their shoulders and walk around the central tower of the prison. A relic from the central prison of Rajahmundry, the stone now rests on a wooden display at the Heritage Jail Museum of Sangareddy district in Telangana, 70 km from Hyderabad.

“Not sure when this kind of punishment was in force, but I can say that this was at least several decades ago,” says jail warder Chintha Saidulu, whose job it is to ensure visitors are well-acquainted with prison life and history. “Don’t attempt to lift it,” Saidulu warns before guiding me towards the other displays such as a grinding stone, a humongous padlock imported from London in 1906, and iron shackles used to bind the hands of erring prisoners. Welcome to the dark alleys of prison tourism!

The Sangareddy jail was built on an expanse of 3.1 acres in 1796, when Salarjung-I was the prime minister of the state of Hyderabad. A new jail building constructed in Kandi village, with a capacity to house 260 prisoners, became operational in May 2012. Consequently, the Sangareddy jail was decommissioned. Seizing the opportunity, the State’s department of prisons converted it into a heritage museum. “There is a prison museum in Cellular Jail at Kala Pani in Andaman and Nicobar. When I saw the Sangareddy jail abandoned, and in ruins, I had a similar idea. Since I was the SP in Sangareddy in the ’90s, I knew the district did not have many tourist landmarks. This was an opportunity for the department to create one,” says VK Singh, Telangana director-general of prisons and correctional services. “This initiative also meant the department could engage around 10-20 prisoners from the nearby jail in Kandi for daily maintenance work, which would pay them prison wages.”

Stark visuals: Over two dozen paintings line the corridors of the Heritage Jail Museum in Sangareddy district. While some depict scenes of crime and punishment from ancient India and Europe, others are illustrations of the modern Indian Penal Code

 

One section of the prison serves as a gallery, with over two dozen paintings of crime scenarios and the corresponding punishments. The paintings depict punishments that were prevalent in ancient India, including the Mughal period, and Europe, as also under sections of the Indian Penal Code.

Singh believes that the museum enables visitors to understand what it means to be imprisoned, seeing first-hand the stifling infrastructure and atmosphere inside a prison. The paintings depicting the tools of punishment, too, will serve as a deterrent against crime. Since June 2016, nearly 4,000 visitors, including around 1,200 children, have passed through the tall green gates of the jail, to visit the museum at a nominal fee of ₹10.

Shortly after the inception of the museum two years ago, the prison department decided to offer the innovative experience of being jailed for a day, for a fee of ₹500. With this move, Sangareddy heritage jail museum joined a handful of prisons worldwide, including the Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, in offering a real prison experience. Today, Maharashtra and Kerala plan to emulate the model.

Feel the jail

Around noon, all that the damp and cold cell has to offer for a view is a portion of the tall pale-yellow wall, the entrance to the female guard’s room, a cropped view of the sky and a few branches of the neem tree growing outside the barrack. At night, after the lights are put out, it gets ominously calm inside the cell. The darkness makes it almost impossible to differentiate between the sky and the wall, unless lit by a bright moon or a wandering firefly.

The door to the three-foot-high wall around the toilet section inside the cell is broken — not that it would have made any difference anyway. The total loss of privacy is unsettling. A cylindrical cement structure meant to store water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, but visitors are spared the trauma and provided with mosquito repellent coils.

Outside the cell, the 20-foot-high wall looks restricting but not in the intimidating way it must have appeared in the past. The knowledge that the barbed wire fence is no longer electrified is comforting.

Isolation, please: Samrat Rangu, a 29-year-old software engineer from Hyderabad, visited in 2016

Since September 2016, around 50 people have chosen to pay and stay behind bars for a full 24 hours for this experience. Those who opt to walk out before the full duration have to pay a penalty of ₹500.

In 2016, when Sampath Kumar, a 45-year-old businessman from Bengaluru read a news report about the ‘Feel the Jail programme’, he quickly went online to gather more details. He roped in a relative and together they boarded the next available train to Sangareddy.

“We should thank the prison department for offering such an experience. It certainly started as an adventure, but we learnt a lot about the hard life of prisoners, and it will probably motivate people to not commit even petty crimes. I will go back again and take my son too, if he shows interest,” says Kumar.

Tourists choosing to stay are handed a prison uniform after being made to surrender all their belongings, which are kept in a safe locker. Unless sealed, even a water bottle isn’tallowed inside. One has to live the spartan life here, including eating the food cooked in the nearby Kandi jail (upma, chapati, rice, rasam on weekdays and mutton or chicken on Sundays), and adhering to the timings and other house rules.

Not for everyone

The prison department has a strict vetting protocol for the visitors. Anyone who consumes alcohol 24 hours before the visit is disqualified. The jail officials also check for signs of depression or suicidal tendencies. People with hypertension or diabetes are advised against the stay.

The department also gets in touch with a family member to ensure that the visitor is not running away or hiding after committing a crime. Lastly, the visitor has to sign an undertaking to acknowledge that they are doing it of their own will.

“Once we got a drunk and disturbed visitor. His mother informed us that he had beaten his wife. He confessed he was there to see how jail life works, in case he got arrested. He wasn’t allowed to stay, but we counselled him about the law before sending him back,” says Santosh Kumar Rai, jail superintendent.

The visitors, of course, have more freedom and flexibility compared to incarcerated convicts and they can also volunteer to work, stay outside the cell, read a newspaper or book, or return to the cell during the day. But after 5.30pm, they are locked up for the next 12 hours.

Morgan Freeman’s one-liner: “That was the longest night of my life” from The Shawshank Redemption would seem relatable, even if only for a day.

“I was curious to see the workings of a jail without committing any crime and this was the opportunity. I didn’t have a co-prisoner or friend with me and did feel lonely, but that’s the whole idea,” says Samrat Rangu, a 29-year-old software engineer from Hyderabad who had signed up for the experience.

Last month, the Sangareddy prison locked up two Malaysian tourists, one of whom was a restaurant owner who wanted to spend some alone time to contemplate about his new business venture. Last week, Kerala’s controversial jeweller, Boby Chemmanur, also visited the jail. The profile of visitors is diverse, ranging from teachers, government employees, archaeologists and architecture students to techies and businessmen.

Fading heritage

While the gloomy façade of the prison, the barbed wires and the routine provide the dark tourism experience, the heritage value of the museum, however, is in urgent need of attention. The two stone watchtowers, from which armed guards must once have terrified prisoners, are perhaps the only structures untouched by modern renovations; but they are badly in need of repairs.

 

Tied and tested: The iron loops were used to bind the hands and feet of inmates, as punishment for wrongful behaviour inside the prison premises   -  Image: Ayesha Minhaz

 

 

The ‘punishment room’, the mere sight of which would’ve possibly scarred prisoners over the past two centuries, was as dark as night even around noon.

Although the room has been preserved as it was, the view around it has been marred by the construction of new toilets. A portion of the building has fallen off and is in need of repairs. The prison authorities estimate that at least ₹1 crore would be needed to restore the building to its original condition.

“We spent ₹40-45 lakh for waterproofing and repairs. We are no experts in the restoration of heritage buildings, but we have tried. We have approached the state archaeological department and tourism department for help. We hope they take it up for the sake of heritage preservation,” says Rai.

From the outside, there is little to indicate the long history of the prison. Multiple coats of paint on the walls have stripped it of its rich heritage, blending it with the other old buildings in the vicinity.

A government high school, and an old stone building in shambles stand adjacent to the jail museum.

At the school, the children remain blissfully unaware of the decades of heritage next door. A cheerful second-grader is eager to share ghost stories about every high-structure in the vicinity, perhaps tales of caution popularised to keep kids away from trouble; or, perhaps, stories woven around the wailings of the prisoners — here-say from the generations that stayed awake by the sounds, haunted, unable to fall asleep.

Ayesha Minhaz is an independent journalist based in Hyderabad

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Published on February 16, 2018
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