Prison (Reform) Tourism

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By Tilak Jha

A jail can be much more than a place to confine criminals. The State of Sikkim and a humble jailer show the way.

One of the many definitions of a prison is, ‘A correctional institution used to detain persons who are in the lawful custody of the government’. Unfortunately, the popular perception about jails has been of one among the most disreputable places. The first noticed effort to make jail a place of reform was of Tihar. While Tihar continues to raise the bar of what a jail should be; the one other jail to follow Tihar’s footprints comes from Sikkim.

Rongyek Jail in East Sikkim is emerging as a true home for its inmates to reform and re-invent themselves. And to watch these inmates’ world of hope, Sikkim has started a first-of-its-kind Prison Tourism. Under this scheme, beginning this month (October), Indian tourists have begun visiting Rongyep Jail on Sundays from 11 am to 2 pm. Tourists have to pay a nominal registration fee of Rs 10 at the Tourism Information Centre (TIC) of Sikkimn.

Every idea requires a force behind it. The force behind this innovative idea of Prison Tourism is none but the Jailer of Rongyek jail Yap Tshering Bhutia. In a telephonic conversation with he said that the planning started in 2009. That was when he suggested introducing Prison Tourism to his senior officials. ‘The State Government has been quite co-operative all along’, says Bhuita. ‘The final yes came in the February this year. Till now around 20 people have already visited the jail’. ‘How came the idea?’ ‘Nobody wants to come and see a prison. People think that a prison is inhabited by criminals. But a prison is inhabited by human beings only. According to the decision of the Supreme Court (SC), a prison doesn’t have to be a punishment but a correction home. So we want people and tourists to come and see what Prison Dept. is doing to reform the inmates. This was the main motto. Additionally, once the jail is opened for public scrutiny, the Prison Dept. is bound to keep the complex neat and clean.’

Cleanliness apart, what also gets noticed are the initiatives taken by the jail authorities. ‘We are taking initiatives as per the guidelines of the SC and NHRC. We impart professional training to the prisoners for their resettlement. They are taught to make envelope. They can also go for screen painting, floriculture, organic farming, wood carving, bakery, learning how to make bamboo products and even animal husbandry’ and adds ‘Seeing is believing. How was Tihar turned around is know by the whole country’, he says beamingly.

The tourists are shown this creative world of the inmates. ‘We have tried to imbibe Gandhian philosophy of pollution free environment. We have a floriculture section called circuit house and a tea garden. We take the tourist to the sale counter of the products made by the inmates of the jail. We also show them the vocational training center and then the watch tower from where they can see the barracks of the inmates where the prisoners live.’ The tourist can’t talk to the prisoners. Why is so? ‘There are some restrictions. We can allow someone to talk to the prisoner only with the consent of the prisoner’, says Mr. Bhutia.

Rongyek jail is also the biggest jail of Sikkim and hosts around 200 prisoners from 18 to 63 years of age of which 5 are women. In his four years of association with the Jail, Mr. Bhutia has tried to project the jail as a place where humans like us all live. The jail also organises cultural programmes in which the inmates can perform songs composed by themselves. What are his future plans and the Jailer says, ‘I am trying to rope in NGOs from Mumbai and start a computer diploma course.’

How has been your experience handling the prisoners and criminals? ‘When I became a Police Officer I realised that the police tortures the criminals. Once someone comes to jail, they have already got punishment for the crime they committed due to whatever reason. So, I feel pity on them. I change my attitude of a Police Officer and then try to reform them. I believe that we must always keep a human touch in dealing with them. After we started all the good initiatives there has been no report of any inmates troubling any of the jail officials’ and quickly adds ‘we must feel that a prisoner is a person’.



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