Meet A. Irudayaraj who has been helping prisoners on their road to redemption

A.Irudayaraj is Madurai’s Kiran Bedi who believes a prison can be a reformation centre. Two decades ago he launched himself on a self-assigned mission of “correcting” the inmates of Madurai central prison.

“I was confident,” says this friend of prisoners, “that they could all lead a new life.”

“You can blame it on my school,” he smiles when asked what made him quit his teaching job after finishing Masters in Social Work. To reach Britto School, he had to daily go past the Madurai central prison and the sight of handcuffed prisoners walking meekly with policemen disturbed him.

“I have no explanation,” says Irudayaraj, “my mind only wondered about their disrupted family life and what made them commit the crime.”

So driven was he by the thought that in 1991 he set up the Akhil Bharath Organisation for Development and Education (ABODE) Trust to reach out to the offenders and their kin. “Imprisonment disrupts families and there is very little support for children who have a parent in prison,” points out Irudayaraj, who also realised the importance of incarcerated individuals staying connected with their children and families.

So he started reaching out to them, first on occasions like any festival or New Year eve. The more he interacted with them and heard their life story, he felt the need to lift their spirits. The litany of offenses, says Irudayaraj, ranged from thefts to brawls and murders or drug possession and concealing weapons. But it was the emotional battering that needed a repair.

It did not take long for Irudayaraj to become “a brother” to thousands of prisoners over the years. “Past is past” – is what he ingrained in them to revive their confidence and boost their morale. He conducted small, big and one-to-one meetings with the prisoners to understand their minds and aspirations. With a few exceptions, majority wanted to return to their families and reintegrate into society honourably.

But Irudayaraj was saddened by peoples’ thinking that a prisoner is unfit to live in a society. He was further shocked to see how families had turned hostile to the prisoner for bringing shame on them.

While organising crash courses in art, craft and computer for the prisoners and prepare them for a life after their sentence, Irudayaraj interfaced with their families too. He initiated family meetings to help both sides understand each other better and fight their respective loneliness and isolation.

During home visits, he met several children of prisoners who needed to be cared for equally. He started the Precious Children Home in 1998 with 11 kids whose parents were lodged in Madurai jail. Today, he has 60 children of not only prisoners but also separated, ailing or runaway parents and victimised families. In his home, these children between five to 15 years have got a new lease of life growing up on a happy dose of food and knowledge, fun and laughter. While one of them has become a teacher, many others nurture an ambition of becoming doctors, scientists and police officers.

Irudayaraj dreams of establishing a crimeless society by promoting community responsibility. He knows there are many more out there requiring help. Advancing age and a heart surgery have impacted his visits to the prison now but his enthusiasm and commitment for the children is amazing. He refuses donations but relies on faith and peoples’ support.

“There are dark days,” he admits, “when a child falls sick or we fall short of food or in maintenance of the building.”

“But God,” he adds, “always sends school and college students, good Samaritans and volunteers, doctors and care givers to our doorstep to tide over the crisis.”

“They come with clothes, food, uniforms, books and notebooks, soap, oil, shampoo, mats, pillows, school bag or they come for guiding and counselling, taking tuitions or simply entertaining the children. In their act of spontaneity the love they shower on these children lasts forever.”

Irudayaraj also warns against the biggest challenge – that offenders of crime and their families do not become statistics. “It is the responsibility of every citizen to connect and help the affected go through the transition into the community.”

An inner belief keeps Irudayaraj going along with the help and support of his family, friends, acquaintances, neighbours, well wishers and even strangers.

“Once we feel for a person who is down and hurt and understand that he or she needs compassion not rebuttal, all we need to do is to promote happiness,” he makes it sound so simple.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)