High walls, barbed wire fences and armed guards to keep prisoners in check, are being frowned upon by experts who feel open prisons may be a cheaper and better way to reform prisoners.

Minimum restraint is more likely to "promote discipline and gives a sense of self-worth” to prisoners, said researcher Smita Chakraburtty, who had been working to transform prison culture in India for more than a decade.

In 2017, the Supreme Court took note of Chakraburtty’s report on Jaipur’s Sanganer open prison, and its advantages over the closed ones, and subsequently asked all states and union territories to examine the feasibility of setting up such jails in every district.

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Chakraburtty, who has since set up an organisation Prison Aid + Action Research (PAAR) for the cause, has actively worked with many State governments and facilitated the establishment of open prisons.

“Jails are places for rehabilitating people caught on the wrong side of the law. When the report came out, the country had 63 open prisons, 29 of which were in Rajasthan alone. Today, there are 150 open jails in India,” she underlined.

Packed jails

Chakraburrty, who had earlier published a report on the condition of Bihar prisons, said that she was flummoxed to see that inmates in some of the packed jails of the state barely had space to sit.

“After visiting all 58 prisons in Bihar in 2014, and talking to each of the prisoners there, I realised that only a handful of people in regular jails are habitual offenders. There are many who have committed a crime by accident.

Some were stuck there for years for not being able to afford legal help expenses. Many of them were denied humane treatment, a chance for rehabilitation,” she said.

The Supreme Court, paying attention to her report on Bihar jails, had ordered that similar inspections be carried out in other states, too.

Sanganer jail

“I got calls from many states, including Rajasthan, where the organised open prison system of Sanganer left me baffled.

“In Sanganer jail, established back in 1954, at least 450 convicts currently live peacefully with their families. There are no tall walls or iron bars to restrict their movement. The inmates are given huts to stay, but they have to go out to seek a living. A prison committee takes the call on who all should be lodged in the open prison,” she explained.

Authorities there have noted that the number of inmates escaping regular jails was much higher than in open prisons, the researcher stated.

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Former Rajasthan Director General of Police (DGP) Ajit Singh echoed Chakraburtty.

“Unlike some other open prisons in the country, the one at Sanganer allows people to go out to work. The setup at Sanganer ensures that people get to experience community living and reintegrate into the society without facing hassles or stigma. Every district of Rajasthan has an open prison now.

“There have been instances when the convicts refused to leave the open prison in Sanganer,” Singh, who had arranged for Chakraburtty’s visit to the jail and helped her with the research, added.

Better chance

Former acting chief justice of Rajasthan High Court Kalpesh Satyendra Jhaveri, who had appointed Chakraburtty as prison commissioner to undertake her study in the western state, too, observed that the system, if implemented properly, would give jailed individuals a better chance to join the mainstream, after serving their sentences.

“The open prison system does not just secure human rights, it also helps curb overcrowding in jails. However, the fear of losing control over the convicts is one reason why administration in some places doesn’t subscribe to the concept,” Jhaveri, who had also served as Chief Justice of Orissa High Court, maintained.

In her home state West Bengal, the prison researcher is hopeful of collaborating with the government here for effective functioning and management of open prisons.

Open jails should be set up in a place where inmates can go out for gainful employment, said Rajesh Yadav, IG (correctional services).

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"West Bengal has four open prisons in Murshidabad, Raiganj, Medinipur and Durgapur. The Lalgola prison in Murshidabad is the oldest one and it allows inmates to spend time with their families. We have plans to set up more such jails, but having one in every district, especially in rural regions, is not feasible at this point as prisoners may not find an opportunity to work and earn everywhere," he stated.

Second chances

On the website of her organisation PAAR, Chakraburtty and her team have mapped the jails across the country as “prisons and the individuals living in them should have visibility, too”.

“PAAR believes in second chances and hopes to build public perception in favour of reformation. Studies have found that the rate of recidivism is negligible in open prisons, where inmates get a fully functional environment, choice of paid work, and opportunity to live with families.

“Open prison system, having stood the test of time, should now be made a norm In India. It is a cost-effective as well as a humane substitute for the prison cell. There is a long journey ahead, but I am hopeful that mindsets will change, and prisoners, too, will get to live a life of dignity in a few years from now,” she said.