Commoners to tour Bengal jails, mingle with convicts

By Sabyasachi Roy, IANS
Thursday, December 16, 2010

KOLKATA - Can you imagine law abiding citizens spending a day in jail to interact with hardened convicts? In West Bengal, this novel initiative will start next year with the historic Hooghly jail and act as a bridge between those behind bars and those outside.

The government has accepted a proposal by prison authorities to take commoners on a tour of “correctional homes”, as jails in the state are formally called.

“In correctional homes, inmates are to a certain area and remain cut off from the outside world. At the same time, common people are unaware of the lives inside correctional homes,” Additional Director General of Police B.D. Sharma told IANS.

“But if we allow commoners to mingle with the inmates, then their views might change,” he said. If the inmates were treated well by commoners, it will help the former feel like less of social outcastes.

“It will also generate awareness among common people about the condition of prisoners. This will help inmates gain social acceptance after they serve their term,” said Sharma.

The project will roll from March next year.

“The correction services department is now working with the tourism department to promote the project. It has been decided that tourists will be taken to the Hooghly correctional home because of its historic importance and natural ambience.

“We have decided to launch the project with the Hooghly correctional home because the great Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam was imprisoned there for sometime. The cell in which he was kept has been preserved properly. Tourists will be allowed to go inside the cell.

“Besides the greenery inside the campus, its location near the Hooghly river will draw the crowds,” Sharma said.

Kazi Nazrul Islam was arrested Nov 23, 1922 and sentenced to a year’s rigorous imprisonment for what the British government called seditious writings. He also undertook a 40-day hunger strike in Hooghly Jail to protest the ill treatment of political prisoners.

A ticketing system will be introduced for tourists to help raise money for the prisoners’ welfare fund.

Biswanath Chowdhury, minister of the child and correctional services department, said the project will help right the wrong notions that a majority of people have about correctional homes.

“They are not aware that several freedom fighters and great personalities have spent number of days there. If we can illuminate people about the lives and works of great personalities, we will be paying the right tribute to them. Subsequently, generate awareness among the masses about prisoners and the environment in correctional homes will go up,” he said.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asian director of Human Rights Watch, said: “I am interested. It is a noble idea but the authorities have to be cautious that the inmates and undertrials are treated well by tourists during interactions.

“There should be some guidelines for tourists so that it does not seem like that they are touring inside a zoo.”

The authorities also have to take against misuse of the initiative by criminals.

“We need to make comprehensive security arrangements. This will be done in the next two-three months. After that the correctional homes will be thrown open to tourists,” said Sharma.

“We need to generate awareness among the masses that the prisoners or under trials are not different from the other people of the society,” said Sharma.

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