Scenic, green and verdant Nettukaltheri is buzzing on a hot and humid Tuesday. Men in white shirts and blue and white dhotis, many of them bare-chested, are busy working on vegetable gardens, getting the produce ready for ‘Vishukkani’ on Saturday and Sunday. The vegetables would be kept for sale as ‘Vishukkani’ at a counter outside the Central Jail at Poojappura. The fact that the growers’ Vishu celebrations will be at the Open Jail at Nettukaltheri do not dampen their enthusiasm.
Instead, for most of the men here, there is the serenity of acceptance, hope of rehabilitation and the fact that the open prison is a halfway measure between incarceration and freedom. Although liberty is just a few yards away, the men seem to resist its pull to enjoy their hard-won liberties within the institution and harvesting the fruits of their labour.
For years now, select inmates of the nearly 474-acre facility, about 35 km from Thiruvananthapuram, have been nurturing their green thumb by cultivating several vegetables, varieties of bananas and fruits in addition to a large rubber plantation and taking care of a dairy farm, poultry and duck farm.
“Spread over two complexes, the open jail, established in 1962, was allotted 500 acres by the forest department. Now we have about 474 acres spread over two facilities - one at Nettukaltheri and one at Thevancode, a few km away. Both function as one with the same set of officers and staff members,” explains M. Mohanakumaran, superintendent of the open jail.
Empowering the inmates
The aim is to empower the inmates with skills to earn a living once they are released. So all of them undergo training in one skill or the other.
Farming is a major activity and, in fact, the rubber plantations on the hilly premises were started by early inmates who were shifted here from the Central jail.
With great zeal, some of the men working on the fields tell the agricultural officer W.R. Ajith Singh that a huge crop had been harvested in the morning and sent to the city for sale.
Ajith points out the healthy and bountiful vegetable gardens full of snake gourds, curry leaves, brinjals, cow peas, amaranthus, bitter gourd and more.
Under his supervision, vegetable cultivation is being modernised with greenhouses, drip irrigation and introduction of new kinds of seeds.
“We plan to supply saplings and seeds to Horticorp and augment the income of the jail. To increase the yield, I am trying to bring in better-yielding varieties and also enhance the fertility of the soil. But the aim is always to grow safe food,” explains Ajith, proudly showing off a new variety of bitter gourd that he got from Thrissur and a crimson cluster of amaranthus.
At the dairy farm with more than 40 cows, each of which has been named by the caretakers, milk is being measured before it is taken to the kitchen and the cooperative nearby. The farmers also supply the chicken that is sold at Freedom Cafe, an outlet and eatery on the premises of the Poojappura Central Prison. Recently, duck rearing has been added to the activities and the eggs are sold.
“We have a counter near the main entrance of the jail and three days in a week, the produce from the prison is sold there. The rest is sent to the city where the prices are better,” says welfare officer Shijo Thomas.
He points out that the aim of the facility is not to make profits but to help the men under their care to dream of a better tomorrow with the help of livelihood skills. To that end, there are classes in carpentry, wiring, computer animation, driving, AC repair and refrigeration.
“We have requested for a permanent instructor for carpentry because, soon a wooden toy-making class will be started on the premises in addition to carpentry and handicrafts,” says J. Patrick, assistant superintendent of the jail, while walking with us to show us the studio and workshop where wood craft is taught.
The officers explain that since the person in charge of handicrafts is on leave, as parole is referred to here, the workshop is empty. But the artisans’ presence can be seen in the half-finished and completed products neatly arranged on shelves in the workshop.
Next to the handicrafts workshop, in covered sheds are facilities for processing the rubber latex into sheets. Last year, income from the sheets came up to nearly Rs one-and-a-half crores.
Many of the workshops are quiet as it is late in the afternoon. Moreover, as Vishu is around the corner and Easter has just got over, quite a number of inmates have availed themselves of ‘leave’. However, on the premises, more than Vishu or Easter, it is Onam and Christmas that are celebrated with gusto. “Moreover, during the Makaravilakku season, like all pilgrims to Sabarimala, some of the inmates go through the rituals. However, instead of trekking to Sabarimala, they trek up a hill called Nehru mala on the premises of the jail and offer prayers at a temple on the peak of the hill,” says Shijo.
Work is worship
The more spiritually inclined of the prisoners get to worship at a unique building with three entrances. Each entrance serves as the doorway to a temple, a church and a mosque respectively. Nevertheless, for several of the inmates, the main dictum here seems to be ‘work is worship’.
A short walk away is the carpentry workshop with mechanised equipment where a few men are busy making benches and desks. Most of the furniture in the jail are made by them and they also take up orders from other departments. Although the bulk of the wood used has been sourced from their premises, wood has been bought from the forest department for the toy-making class and carpentry workers too.
“Since we have inmates from all walks of life, there is always someone who can teach the others or lead the classes. On an average there are about 425 prisoners. Recently, we have been sanctioned a study centre of Indira Gandhi Open University. Our first batch has 19 men for a Bachelor’s Preparatory Programme and five for undergraduate programme in sociology,” says a soft-spoken Shijo.
Many of the courses have been shifted to a common centre called Naipunya at Thevancode where guest lecturers will guide the students and help them get the required qualifications to ply a trade.
Floriculture is next on the cards. Since there is a huge demand for flowers, the authorities are planning to add a bouquet of flowers to the produce from Nettukaltheri. If their plans blossom, most likely, the inmates of the jail would also be joining in the Onam celebrations across the State with the blooms of their labour.
LIFE AT OPEN JAIL
* Prisoners have to satisfy stringent conditions to be shifted to the open jail. Well-behaved men who have completed at least three years of their sentence or one-third of the sentence could be considered for the Open Jail. They should have gone at least once on parole. “The hope is that these prisoners have had a change of heart and can be rehabilitated. It is mutual trust that keeps the Open Jail here ticking,” says Shijo.
* There are no high walls surrounding the Open Jail. The fences, say the officers, are meant to keep off wild animals from their farms.
* There is no lock-up and the men are free once their duties for the day are over. “There is a roll call at 9 pm and then they go to the barracks. They themselves do the housekeeping, cooking and upkeep of the place with the police, keeping an eye on them,” explains Shijo.
* The inmates are allowed 75 days of parole and then there is provision for emergency leave as well.
* Unlike other prisons where visitors and prisoners are separated by a metal grill, relatives of prisoners at the Open Jail can have direct face to face meeting with the inmates in a room that is monitored with the help of closed circuit cameras.
* Officially, no mobile phones are allowed, but the inmates can make calls within a certain limit in a room that is provided with five telephones.
* A well-equipped library functions inside the jail and the well-thumbed books vouch for the readers amongst the inmates.
Leading from the front
In an article published in The Hindu in November last, R. Sreelekha, Director General of Police, Prisons and Correction Services, Kerala wrote: “While law makes it mandatory to keep convicted criminals away from society where the offences were committed, it was only in the last few years that the idea of reformation gained traction in the State.
In 2010, the Prisons Department metamorphosed into Prisons and Correction Services Department. Former prison officers are now correctional officers, their primary duty being reformation of prisoners to become good citizens, by providing them education and training to boost their physical, mental and moral standards and fortify their character and mental attitudes.”