Convicts dream of freedom. Open jails offer a limited version

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By Samarth Saran

Open door policy  Convicts at the Sanganer open jail assemble for the morning roll call
Open door policy
Convicts at the Sanganer open jail assemble for the morning roll call

KRISHNA KANT Sharma returns from work at 6 pm on his shiny black Bullet motorcycle. At home, his three children and wife greet him. He settles down for a cup of tea and inquires about the day’s highlights. Sounds like the daily routine of a working man? But here’s the difference — the 35-year-old has been convicted of murder and is serving a life term in Sanganer open jail.

Located on the outskirts of Jaipur, the open jail is not your regular prison. It does not have huge walls. It has a large open area, brick houses and a compound where kids play cricket. To top it off, the guards manning the place are unarmed and wear plain clothes when on duty.

“This is more like a village,” says Anil Sharma, a homeopathic practitioner and sarpanch of the open jail. Sharma was a co-accused in the murder of a political rival during his college days. “I regret what happened 20 years ago. I missed out on too many things in my life,” he rues.

Sharma has been living with his wife and two sons here for the past 10 years. His elder son, Shubham, studies in class XI and aspires to be a doctor.

So, has this open jail changed his life? “Definitely. I can stay with my family, meet my relatives and carry on with my work,” says Sharma, who runs a clinic where he checks 10-15 patients every day.

Every convict in an open jail has to earn a living. Rules allow a person to work within a 8-10 km radius. The Sanganer facility has 160 residents who live with their families. They cook food, own televisions, coolers, refrigerators and also have Internet access. A convict is allocated a house by the sarpanch. A typical house in this open jail has two rooms, a kitchen and a bath area.

The open jail was the brainchild of former Rajasthan governor Sampurnanand. After seeing the success of similar facilities in the West, he initiated the concept. The state government started the Sri Sampurnanand Khula Bandi Shivir in 1963. Initially, 35 convicts were shifted to the open jail. The experiment proved to be a success and 12 more facilities were opened where 529 convicts are housed.

For a convict to be eligible, he should have served more than half of his sentence in a regular prison. He should be a resident of the state, must be aged between 25 to 60 years, should be married and should have shown good conduct.

Prisoners convicted of terrorism and rape are not eligible. Based on the recommendation of the jail superintendent, a committee headed by the Director General of Prisons decides which convict can be transferred to the open jail. A majority of those shifted are murderers. “Murderers are not repeat criminals. Most of them commit a crime in the heat of the moment,” says Omendra Bhardwaj, Director General, Prisons, Rajasthan.

Another aspect of the open jail is that there is no segregation between men and women. Of 160 convicts in Sanganer, 11 are women. Urmila Jain has been living here for nine years. “You feel suffocated in a prison. Here we have freedom. It’s much better,” says Urmila, who was convicted of poisoning her three children and attempting suicide.

‘A prison can be suffocating, but here we have freedom,’ says convict Urmila

A convict can leave the premises after 6 am and has to be back by 7 pm. If a convict fails to abide by the rule, he is shifted to a regular prison. The time limitation and monotonous schedule are something Vishnu Sharma complains about, but he knows that there is no escape. Drinking is his only solace now. “I can’t sleep if I don’t drink,” says the maths teacher, who works at a local school. Vishnu was convicted of murdering his wife and has been living here for the past three years. “I have no regrets. I am happy that I killed her,” he remarks.

The past decade has seen only 16 escapes from the Sanganer open jail. It has acted as a bridge between society and the prisoners and its success has encouraged the Rajasthan government to plan 10 more such facilities. However, this model has not been successful all over the country — there are only 28 open jails in India.

Photo: Vineeta Saini

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