Book Cafe, run by prisoners, at Shimla, India- a reform step; article by Sandeep Silas

In a country of 1.311 billion, 1401 prisons with 4,19,623 prisoners, divided into convicts and under-trials, only one officer has had the courage and sensitivity to recognize that prisoners too are fellow human beings.

True, some Court has sat in Judgment upon them for committing some crime or the other, but do we ever come to know of their real life stories, the actual circumstance, which compelled their impulse to do an act, which was adjudged as crime under a code of law. True, crime needs punishment and the latter is necessary to maintain a discipline in a civil society, but reform is also a possibility.

This opportunity has been realized by a distinguished Police officer posted in Shimla, (Himachal Pradesh) as Director-General (Prisons), Mr. Somesh Goyal, who incidentally is also a dear friend and a batchmate.

One officer Pankaj Raj conceived the idea of a Book Café, and Somesh Goyal executed it to be located at Takka Bench, just above the famous Ridge of Shimla, which is being run by prisoners, all serving a life sentence. Here, they serve pizzas, burgers, biscuits, tea, coffee and the usual stuff inside a Café, which has wall cabinets all around stuffed with books.

Shimla Ridge

Book Cafe, Takka Bench

Montaigne says, “Ordinate conduct, moderation, constancy apart, I believe that anything at all can be done, even by a man who, taken overall, is lacking and deficient. That is why the wise men say that to judge a man properly we must principally look at his routine activities and surprise him in his everyday dress”.[1]

The atmosphere created is of a library café, where one can sit head down immersed deep in the world being unveiled by the book and occasionally look up through the windows far into valleys and beyond, into the realms of the mind…

The Book Café was inaugurated this April 11th by the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, who also must be given credit for approving such a pioneering venture as a first in any State of India. The Café seats 40, and has free Wi-Fi. I liked the indoor décor of deodar wood, which gives a warm feeling in a hill city. A lot of books, available to a reader, narrate the history of the evolution of Shimla, which became the capital of the British Raj, with evocative photo prints. Apart from that you have historical philosophies, detective thrillers and travel & tourism books.

I saw many young couples and the recently married ones come to the café and for want of space inside sit in conversation upon the seating area around the majestic tree outside. Having completed my walk of 7.5 km for the day, I thought I could afford a pizza and had one. The courtesy with which I was served is worth mentioning.

Look into the faces and eyes of Yograj and Jai Chand and you will wonder why life made them captives of a criminal impulse and why their life is not like other men. Just for a second of indiscretion they got punished with a life sentence, live in jail as condemned persons, devoid of fresh air, freedom to go anywhere or to eat their heart’s desire. I don’t know the facilities inside the jails in Himachal, but from what I have seen they will be definitely sub-human. I do not have those X-ray eyes, which spiritual Masters possess, blessed with the ability to look deep into your soul, but, definitely I have a feeling heart and a thinking mind. So I don’t know for sure what thoughts a prisoner of fate like Yograj has as he serves the public here, but I saw he was thoughtful.

“I disclaim those incidental reformations based on pain. ‘God must touch our hearts’. I Samuel 10:26. Our conscience must emend itself by itself, by the strengthening of our reason not by the enfeebling of our appetites. [2]

I think that if other States of India could adopt this reformatory idea as ‘sharing of best practices’ a window of reform shall open quietly, inside hearts and our society.
Prison Statistics, India

Country India

 

Ministry responsible Ministry of Home Affairs
Prison administration Governments of States and Union Territories
Prison population total (including pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners) 419 623

at 31.12.2015 (National Crime Records Bureau)

Prison population rate (per 100,000 of national population) 33

based on an estimated national population of 1,289.7 million at end of 2015 (from United Nations figures)

Pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners (percentage of prison population) 67.2%

(31.12.2015)

Further Information

Female prisoners (percentage of prison population) 4.3%

(31.12.2015)

Further Information

Juveniles / minors / young prisoners incl. definition (percentage of prison population) 0.0%

(31.12.2015 – under 18)

Foreign prisoners (percentage of prison population) 1.5%

(31.12.2015)

Number of establishments / institutions 1 401

(31.12.2015 – comprising 134 central jails, 379 district jails, 741 sub jails, 18 women’s jails, 63 open jails, 20 Borstal schools, 43 special jails, 3 other jails)

Official capacity of prison system 366 781

(31.12.2015)

Occupancy level (based on official capacity) 114.4%

(31.12.2015)

Courtesy: World Prison Brief; http://www.prisonstudies.org/country/india

[1] Michel De Montaigne; The Complete Essays; On virtue; page 799; Penguin.

[2] Michel De Montaigne; The Complete Essays; On repenting; page 920; Penguin.

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