In 1995, when Reny George was released from the Thiruvananthapuram central prison in Kerala, he had spent 15 years behind bars for a sensational double murder of an elderly couple that shook the state in 1980. He was in his late twenties when his wayward circumstances led him, along with a few friends, to the murder.
The judge spared him the noose because of his age and sentenced him to life-imprisonment. In his words, he “freaked out” for the first six years of his life in jail. But soon, he found solace in spirituality during one of his parole days.
He began to feel transformed and shared his experience with fellow inmates. His aim was not only in changing himself, but change as many others as he could.
Since then, he has been talking to prisoners and has been tirelessly working to improve the lives of others. He is perhaps the best Indian example for prison reforms - how a murder convict, who had gone through all the ills of incarceration including social stigma, can lead a normal life and influence change. He has been a relentless reformer for the last 18 years.
Reny runs a home for children of prisoners and victims of crime “who are deprived of the normal security of a family life” in Bangalore and also visits prisons to speak to the convicts and share his life-experience to inspire them.
In 2008, he was selected as a CNN-IBN Real Hero.
In the wake of the death of Ram Singh, the Delhi gangrape accused, in Tihar jail early this week, Firstpost spoke Reny about the living conditions in Indian jails and the need for prison reforms. Here are some excerpts from his insights on the conditions of Indian jails.
The death of the Delhi gangrape accused in Tihar, right under the nose of the security personnel and fellow inmates, has once again brought to attention the horrible living conditions in Indian jails. Your thoughts?
I think the scene is so volatile. It’s like fuming volcano - anything can happen any time in Tihar and other overcrowded Indian jails. As you would have seen recently in the case of some high profile people who spent a few months in Tihar, it’s not a big problem for those with money and influence.
But for the C-class prisoners, it is really terrible.
Despite the occasional intervention of human rights activists, nothing longstanding is happening for the welfare and better living conditions of prisoners. There is no worthwhile support system. They are subjected to inhuman acts by senior prisoners and staff. They remain in the same conditions for years. We can’t be surprised if they get inhuman and more criminal.
Can’t we do something? We often hear about “jail reforms”
We cannot make any drastic change - that is the naked fact. When something tragic or sensational happens, we respond, we try to do something. But, that won’t change systems.
Unless there is a total systemic change, things will not improve. Remember the last time somebody looked into prison reforms in India was in 1980. That report has never seen the light of the day. Of course, lots of changes have happened in many jails, but the overall scene is still very very bad.
You really sound despondent. why?
In the last 18 years of my work with prisoners, I have realised that the only thing that works is your effort at a personal level. People like you and me cannot make systemic changes, but we can try to change the lives of a few people.
If we decide to help a few inmates - intervene at a personal level and keep working at it - It could work and you could get the support from the jail authorities as well. Their attitude to the prisoners that we work with also may change over time.
The biggest problem we face is the social construct of a criminal - a criminal is always a criminal and this attitude is in fact a disincentive against personal reformation of the convicts in jails.
True, for society a criminal is condemned to be a criminal for life. But, do the “criminals” in jails sincerely want to change?
That’s an interesting question. Perhaps because of the social conditions, perhaps because they haven’t seen any transformative changes in other criminals’ lives, I think only two per cent want to be reformed. It’s sad, but true. I am meeting criminals on a day-to-day basis, but unfortunately most of them don’t want to change.
For this attitude to change, we have to change ourselves and be proactive and affirmative.
Otherwise, it’s going to be a major problem. They can sit in jails and wreak havoc in society. Even with very strict security checks, they are able to take mobile phones and other facilities inside the jails.
Institutions from various sectors should seriously look at their reforms and rehabilitation. If you lock up people and condemn them as criminals for life, they will behave like criminals.
Industries and businesses should help, there should take an active role in de-stigmatisation, rehabilitation and re-integration.
There are a lot of reports of torture and sexual abuse in Indian jails. How serious are they?
Yes, lot of abuses, including sexual abuse, happen. Many young people enter the jails meant for adults because of wrong calculation of age. When the courts don’t ask for age determination tests and juveniles end up in jails, they are easy targets for sexual abuse.
I think the states should be more lenient on parole and should take steps to humanise the convicts.
Rapists are treated the worst. It’s a reflection of the social order that we see in our societies. Rapists are condemned, get repeatedly attacked and sexually violated. Some times officers also encourage them. More over, the jailbirds get to read 4-5 newspapers and watch news channels every day. They know what’s happening outside. In the case of the Delhi rape, the inmates themselves could have been certainly agitated because they knew exactly what was happening.
It’s a global issue that everybody is trying to address, but is unable to handle. See, we are not seeing a reduction in the rate of crimes. On the contrary, it is increasing. There are more people going to jail because there are more crimes in society. Unless the crimes come down, the pressure on jails will not ease. There are new jails and detention facilities, but nothing will be enough if the crime rates and number of criminals outpace them. There has to be a social change that reduce crimes.
So the prospects for change look so bad. Is my reading correct?
Unfortunately yes. But, if we all can do our bit - by giving a chance for people to reform themselves, by creating social conditions that will reduce the crime in society and by humanising conditions in jails - things could change.