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Wind Of Change Hits Asia's Largest Jail

Article illustrative image Partner logo Welcome to the big house

NEW DEHLI – It has its own factories and over-crowded dorms: 12,124 people live in this small town, a stone’s throw from New Delhi.

Behind a tall pink wall, century-old trees guard over plain looking prison buildings. Murderers, bandits, terrorists, rapists and traffickers have turned this place into a goldmine for anthropological criminology students.

Its name alone is enough to send shivers down the spine: Tihar Prison is the largest jail in Asia and holds twice as many prisoners as it was built for. But, for the past two years, prison authorities have launched unique initiatives:  “Hate crimes not criminals” reads a sign painted on one of its walls. “The concept of prison has changed: we correct the inmates. We do not punish them,” says Girish Pandev, general intendant of prison block 2. “We believe that they can become good people.” In India, where torture is still commonly used in gloomy jails, it is a revolution.

"We are confined between walls / Our souls fly away / Our dreams are real," sing rock-band The Flying Souls in a brightly-lit room. The band is composed of Arnam, Chandra, Bhagirat, Sunni, Vikamjit, Sandeep and Amit, all inmates already sentenced or waiting for trial. “Before playing music, I was depressed and obsessed with my trial,” says guitarist Sunni. “I’m at peace now.” Their instruments come from donations. Tihar Jail has recently become fashionable and New Delhi’s most popular artists now flock to work with the inmates. Local rock band Menwhopause recently helped the band shape its new “fusion” identity, combining Panjabi rab and Bollywood melodies.  “Our songs talk about culpability, pain and romance,” says young singer Sandeep Singh, convicted for kidnapping. “Being locked up makes realize how much you are loved.”

Meditation, cricket, movies

Tihar Jail was inaugurated in 1958 and is an over-crowded prison run under the outdated “Prison Act” of 1894. It holds double its capacity of 6250 as 73,5 percent of its inmates are waiting for their trial. Some end up spending years in the prison before being found innocent at trial. Out of India’s 370,000 inmates, the poorest ones end up here, the ones who can’t afford good lawyers, bribes and bail.

Tahir Jail started changing when Kiran Bedi, India’s first woman high-ranking police official, took over the prison’s administration in 1993. She looked for ways to ease tensions within the jail. She successfully introduced Vipassana meditation for guards and inmates. “Prison conditions started evolving,” explains Girish Pandey, including security issues, following a string of high-profile escapes.

Today, Tihar Jail has its own cricket teams, movie screenings and libraries. Women inmates can now live with their children who attend the prison’s daycare. Illiteracy has dropped thanks to education programs and inmates can receive computer and English trainings. The prison factory currently employs 1120 prisoners. “When fights break out, it is always in dorms. They never take place at the factory” says factory manager Pradeep Sharma. “TJ” is a prosperous brand with sales reaching four million euros. It makes clothing, school benches, shoes, recycled paper, spices, mustard oil, rugs and biscuits, which are mostly bought by the government. Entrepreneurs are invited to recruit within the prison’s doors.

Birdhouses and bonsai gardens

The inmates have turned Tihar Jail into a small museum of oddities. It features huge model boats, birdhouses in the trees. A former businessman even built his own bonsai tree garden. “I got the idea from my mother who loves to grow bonsai trees” he smiles. “I would like to do the same thing with orchids.” He prefers to remain unnamed yet it is difficult not to recognize the perpetuator of one of India’s most famous incidents. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of model Jessica Lal in 1999.

The prison used to be famous for its schemes, but “Tihar Jail now wants to set a good example," says spokesperson Sunil Gupta. It is very likely that dubious practices still exist in the jail, especially regarding influential inmates who enjoy special treatments. But times have changed and so have inmates. “Big corrupted inmates” are replacing the “big criminals.” They are nicknamed “VIP inmates” and include the likes of Andimuthu Raja, a former Minister accused of using his post to sell off valuable mobile telephone spectrum licenses or Suresh Kalmadi, jailed for corruption in the Commonwealth Games. They enjoy special treatment and stay in single cells. “For security issues” explains Sunil Gupta. They don’t interact much with the other inmates but they are free to work, paint, meditate, play music and do gardening as much as they want.

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