From the Field Society

Ninety-nine per cent free

The prisoners live on 1,500 acres of mostly barren land with no compound walls at the Anantapur open prison.

The prisoners live on 1,500 acres of mostly barren land with no compound walls at the Anantapur open prison.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

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To the 94 men in the Anantapur open prison, freedom lies within the jail

As the fierce mid-day sun beats down on the rocky plains that surround the town of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, a massive banyan tree offers refuge to a group of men taking a break from their work in the fields. Anantapur’s farmers have an unenviable task. One of India’s driest districts, drought is the norm rather than an aberration here. This year too, the rains have failed and yields will undoubtedly be low.

But the mood under the banyan tree is relaxed. Banter flows easily as a chaiwallah hands out cups of lukewarm tea. Unlike most other cultivators in the region, these men are assured three meals a day even if their crops fail. All of them, including the man doling out the chai, are convicts serving out life sentences for murder at the Prisoners Agricultural Colony in Anantapur.

The open prison system traces its origins back to temporary labour camps set up under the British Raj, which drew their workforce from prisons. However, as the 1983 report submitted by the Justice Mulla Committee (set up to review and improve the open prison system) makes clear, the objectives of these prisons today are radically different. From “extracting hard labour under humiliating conditions” they have changed to providing “prisoners with useful work” in a way that could help restore self-respect and give them a sense of “pride and achievement”.

Today, 17 States operate open prisons. While an absence of high walls and large numbers of guards is common to all of them, each State also has its own unique variation to the concept. Some open prsions, like the one in Buxar, Bihar, allow prisoners to stay with their families in one-room residential units, while the inmates of a prison in Durgapura, Rajasthan, even own vehicles that they use to commute to jobs outside.

I live a 99% free life now, but if I run away, I won’t feel even 1% free.

By these standards, the Anantapur open prison is conservative. The 94 men housed here live in modest shared dormitories and are all employed either in the fields growing fruits and vegetables or in two petrol pumps recently set up just outside the facility. Some also work as support staff, doing kitchen, electrical or plumbing work, and other odd jobs.

Trust is key

One of 63 open prisons in the country, the Colony is a 1,500-acre expanse of mostly barren land. It has no walls apart from a small stretch abutting the highway, which was constructed more to keep encroachments out than prisoners in. There are around 30 guards, but as the superintendent (since retired) K.L. Sreenivasa Rao says, “Trust is the most important pillar of this institution. It is impossible to guard such a large open area. A prisoner could go to Bengaluru and come back between roll calls.”

And yet, runaways are almost unheard of. “From your point of view, there may be no walls here, but I can definitely see them. They follow me everywhere I go,” says Alladapalli Shivashankar Reddy, a murder convict who has spent seven years here. The consensus among the prisoners is that one would have to be either extraordinarily desperate or just plain stupid to run away from a prison such as this. “I live a 99% free life now, but if I run away, I won’t feel even 1% free,” says Reddy.

A burly man with a thick beard and a booming laugh, Shivashankar holds an M.Sc in physics and was a college professor in his previous avatar. Hailing from one of Andhra Pradesh’s notorious ‘factionist’ villages that are as famous for their homemade bombs as they are for their hospitality, he was among the few who managed to escape the cycle of violence and make a decent life. But when he was about 28, he and several members of his politically influential family were falsely implicated in a murder case by a rival family.

Former professor and murder convict Shivashankar tends to crops from early morning to late evening at the Anantapur open prison.

Former professor and murder convict Shivashankar tends to crops from early morning to late evening at the Anantapur open prison.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

“I knew I was going to jail even though I hadn’t done anything. I decided to earn my sentence. I killed one of them,” he recollects, his voice rising to a crescendo as he reaches the end of his account. With a rueful laugh, he adds, “Thinking back now, we were ignorant and stupid. It was a bad decision.”

No career criminals

Shivashankar’s tale is representative of many others in the Colony. Chandrashekar, 32, make-up artist, stabbed his lover in a heated argument. Madhusudhan Goud, 32, truck driver, was tricked into getting rid of a sack that was later found to have a dead body. Venkatanarayana Reddy, 38, was implicated in his wife’s suicide.

Convicts by circumstance rather than by character, there are no hardened career criminals here. “There is a very specific set of criteria a prisoner must fulfil in order to be transferred here,” explains Rao. “They are required to serve a part of their sentence in a regular jail. That gives us a chance to observe them.” Convicts with extensive criminal histories don’t make the cut; prisoners with family backgrounds, who’ve shown consistent good behaviour, who’ve gone home on parole and returned… these are the ones who make it to open prison.

Another trait that helps is a willingness to work hard. “I reach the fields around six in the morning and work till late evening,” says Shivashankar. “I feel a sense of ownership for the fields. I’m constantly thinking about them even when I’m not working.”

In Anantapur’s markets, where the convicts sell their harvest directly to customers, their town’s prison produce is associated with chemical-free, high-quality fruits and vegetables. Even in the aftermath of demonetisation, when cash was hard to come by and shelves were full of unsold stock, prisoners say their produce consistently sold out. “The locals don’t treat us like criminals. Because of what we do here, they don’t see a criminal as someone to be feared or kept at a distance. They call us anna (brother) instead of kaidhi (criminal),” says Venkatanaryana. But Shivashankar quickly interjects, “Of course, if we go 20 km away from here, all that changes again.”

It is clear that the responsibility and trust placed in these prisoners enhances their sense of self-worth, but it is also at odds with the popular image of convicts. “Back home, people don’t believe the kind of life I lead. They think of prisoners as being kept in chains and breaking rocks,” says Chandrashekar.

This has translated into a rather unexpected equation with the idea of parole for many prisoners. “When you’ve been in jail this long, everyone treats you differently. It’s not me who’s suffered the most, but my wife and children. They feel the impact every day,” says Shivashankar. “Wherever they go, everyone knows their husband or father is a convict. So when I go on parole, I sit at home the whole time even though that’s the only time I’m outside jail. Being at home is more like being jailed than being here.”

The Anantapur open prison’s chemical-free produce is in high demand with the locals.

The Anantapur open prison’s chemical-free produce is in high demand with the locals.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

Along the compound wall, a little way to the left of the Colony’s gate, is a small corrugated metal shack that stands testament to the kind of oasis that an open prison can come to represent in the mind of a convict. It houses an ironing service rather like the millions of others run on pavements across the country. The only difference is that it is owned by a former convict who served out his sentence at the open prison, but felt so much at home here that he decided to stay on in its shadow.

“There should be a lot more open prisons. That’s the only way a prisoner can really change,” says Chandrashekar, who spent close to four years in three other prisons before being transferred here. “Trapped within the four walls of an ordinary prison, you get angry and start hating society and everything around you. Here, I wake up in the morning and walk around the grounds with a toothbrush in my mouth. I can’t help but be at peace in an atmosphere like that.”

visvaksen.p@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 2:17:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/ninetynine-per-cent-free/article17442096.ece

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