“A typical day would start at 9AM at the gates of the Central Prison where we prepare ourselves to enter the obsolete tech-free world, while leaving all our belongings (including our phones) outside.
We would then go through a thorough checking process and then walk half a mile to reach the prison’s school area (where our Skill Development Program operates). By the time we reached the school, word would have spread and the inmates would already be there to greet us with a smile. The joy on their faces would pump us with copious amounts of energy.”
The project, designed to equip long-term inmates of the Puzhal Prison with skills that would help them make a new life for them of gainful employment outside the prison. The skills were decided based on the student’s interest, the growing demand for a skill outside the prison, the feasibility of setting up a means of livelihood inside the prison, the impact on the prisoners, and the cost involved.
Aravind got involved in the project through a friend of his, who was aware of his attributes and personality. After sharing his profile with the concerned leader who was in-charge of the Prison Project and after going through a rigorous interview, he was finally selected from a pool of competent and passionate trainers.
Aravind recalls following a strict daily schedule during his time in the prison. Training would begin at 9.30 AM. The inmates were separated into batches of 10 and split among the following activities:
- Driving Simulator Training
- Driving Training,
- English Language Training,
- Soft Skills Training,
- Employable Skill Development Training,
- Cognitive Creative Centre (a centre where the inmates are mentally occupied with artistic and intellectual games and puzzles),
- Planning and Discussion with the team which runs Valluvar Vasagara Vattam (a book review session by the inmates conducted every Friday),
- Lectures on various topics and
- Events and Contests
The Adaptation Period
When starting the program, Aravind’s purpose and vision was to ensure that his lesson plans and classes upgrade his students’ skills and made them competent and at par with their counterparts outside the walls of the prison within a time period of 3 months. However, he soon ran into difficulty and understood that the plan was far too ambitious in the limited time that he had.
Most of the prisoners getting released from an Indian prison, because of the rigors, tended to become weaker physically and mentally. Tremendous efforts were required from their side, to find their lost confidence and energy, shed their inhibitions, and lessen their insecurities. Despite fighting these mental battles, they would also face extreme pressure from their family members who expect them to start providing for the family immediately upon their return, as some sort of reparation. Those who were adept at handling their emotions and have sound mental health adapt easily and moved on while most succumbed to the pressure.
Considering all these factors, Aravind and the team decided to build awareness to the inmates and equip them to handle such situations and aid them towards a smooth transition. Some of the activities that help them include group and personal coaching which would call for long, arduous hours and high levels of mental stability at Aravind’s end. Through this process, however, was able to understand that one common lesson plan wouldn’t fit and interest everyone. All his students were unique in their own way.
“Hence, I spent a significant amount of time initially with the students to understand their stories, interests, and their mental and physical hardships. I meticulously tuned a plan that was highly experiential, personalized, and focussed on their mental well being while eventually developing the student’s competence in a constructive way. All said and done, there would be days where a student would be completely upset by different factors such as the regress of their case, deteriorated family economy, their unhappy children. I would immediately be able to sense it and allocate time to personally listen to them and coach them. I also ensured that the students were in their best mental state before they entered our training because I strongly believe that a wandering mind will never learn,” says Aravind of his classes.
To defeat the banality of their prison life, Aravind brought in weekly reward-based and skill-based contests and innovative games so that the prisoners participate actively and accelerate their learning. All of these factors combined together were well received by the students and their attendance improved dramatically. The team continued with the personalized lesson plans that would focus on all the 30 students of a batch.
The Success Period
Driving was one such life skill that the team chose to prioritize above anything else. Hence, the predominant focus was on driving lessons and getting the students their driving license within the prison campus. With the support of the Government of Tamil Nadu (Transport Ministry), an order was passed to take the necessary RTO set-up inside the prison and perform the necessary tests, as is applicable to citizens. Students who passed the stringent driving test (no exceptions were made) were rewarded with a government-approved driving license. As of December 2019, out of the 90 students who had applied, 66 have successfully passed their driving tests.
Soft skills were given equal importance. Skills such as customer handling, speaking with clarity and confidence, basic communicative English were also taught, as the team believed that the competition outside the walls was cut-throat and wanted their students to be highly competent and market oriented too.
The team ran a 3-month batch with 30 students in each of them. They selected 30 students from a pool of 500+ prisoners through a conscientious interview process which enabled us to select students who are trustworthy and truly deserve a second chance at life. “The employers understood our process and placed enormous trust in us and our judgment” recalls Aravind. The team made their employers witness their students’ performance during this training period, which convinced them to trust the inmates. They also conducted a month’s post-prison training session for their student inmates who had been released.
“This truly cemented our employers’ trust and confidence in our training methods and procedures. They also believe that every human being deserves a second chance at life and they were very supportive of this cause,” says Aravind.
Today, five of the seven released inmates have obtained successful and gainful employment – one as a yoga instructor, and four as drivers. The team also conducted an exhibition of some of the artwork created by Pudhuraja, one of the inmates, who took up art during his stint in the prison. The exhibition was a resounding success, and having raised over 50000 INR from it, the entire amount was given to his family for their daily living. Aravind still continues to keep in touch with several of the released inmates, providing them guidance in adjusting to their life in the outside world, from which they had been out of touch for more than five years.
The long days, interaction with the convicts and high level of emotion and dedication that the program required taught Aravind many lessons, but he says the most valuable has been to remind him of his blessings and the time in his life. He also swears that he has now learned the ins and outs of the judiciary system in India. “Most of the crimes that I had heard the inmates tell me happened at the peak of an emotion or under the influence of a substance. I learnt that in life, not every day is a bad day but we should possess the right skills to have a grip on our emotions and handle them during bad times,” he says.
When asked if the program could be replicated in other prisons as well Aravind proudly says a resounding yes.
“This program has grown steadily to stand for itself as a proven success model. Some authorities in the prison department told me that this is the only training project for inmates that has lasted more than 6 months without losing its charm. We also have the numbers to support the programme. So, yes!”
Aravind’s suggestion is that we as a society work towards a scope-shift that can welcome and accommodate convicts who served their sentence and are longing for societal acceptance. Once that shift in perspective takes place, it would be easier to make any rehabilitation measure a well-rounded programme.