Till recently, it was thanks to the protracted legal battle over their mercy petition and candle vigils by human rights groups that resulted in Perarivalan and Murugan making a few headlines. The duo have been convicted of being involved in the murder of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
But on Tuesday, there was a refreshing change.
Both of them cleared the Class XII examination of the Tamil Nadu state board with flying colours. While Perarivalan, scored 1096 out of 1200 marks; fellow convict Murugan, a Sri Lankan Tamil, scored 200 out of 200 in commerce.
File photos of the young Perarivalan and Murugan were on prime time TV on Tuesday for their exceptional feat, made more exceptional by the fact that both have been on death row for over two decades with hardly any exposure to the external world.
For more than a decade, they survived on the hope of a Presidential pardon and have narrowly escaped the gallows thanks to another petition for mercy which is now pending in the Supreme Court.
Even with death closely stalking them, they were vigorously studying with whatever they could lay hands on. Some times books, sometimes some contraptions. Before Class XII, the duo had studied other courses.
Although they are star performers, Perarivalan and Murugan are no exception in Tamil Nadu prisons. Thirty four more prisoners took the plus two examination this year and 27 of them have passed. All of them scored 60 per cent or more. A few of them also have diplomas and degrees in various disciplines.
The thrust on education and associated milestones is beginning to sweep the jails in Tamil Nadu.
Although reformation is a prime objective for keeping criminals in captivity, jail terms often breed more criminality and convert petty offenders into hardcore criminals. The Kiran Bedi brand of reforms that swept the overcrowded Tihar jail in the 1990s demonstrated to the country how personal transformation is essential for any meaningful prison rehabilitation.
If education was one of the many transformational changes that swept Tihar jail in Delhi, it is being given prime importance in Tamil Nadu too. Last year, 19 inmates sat for the Class XII examinations and all of them passed, with seven scoring 60 percent or above. This year, the number of aspirants rose to 27. Two years ago, the numbers were insignificant and hardly made headlines. Now Puzhal prison near Chennai is an examination centre.
According to prison authorities, education is given particular emphasis in the state’s jails “for disciplining the mind as well as to help the inmates find gainful employment” on their release. They are offered primary, secondary and higher secondary education. Through open universities, they can also pursue graduate and post-graduate studies.
The jail authorities also help them train for diplomas for vocational skills.
A simple analysis of the figures for 2011-12, shows that majority of the inmates who undertake studies are school drop-outs – a straightforward piece of evidence that correlates social inequality with crime. Out of the 2,374 inmates who pursued studies during the year, the highest number took school classes (8th-12th standards), followed by graduate courses. There were also a few prisoners who undertook courses such as MCA and MBA.
Other than the school certificate aspirants, the highest number of prisoners attended the Mahatma Gandhi Community College approved by Tamil Nadu Open University, which has diploma courses for vocational skills. The community college offers nine skills-based diploma courses, which the prison authorities feel will help inmates get jobs and help them re-integrate with society once they are out of jail.
First established in the Puzhal prison, it has been extended to eight other central prisons.
Academic studies show how education is important for reducing recidivism or repeated offences. One popular American research paper showed that investment in education, rather than incarceration, is a far better tool to reduce crimes. Several studies have also established that education in jails reduces the proclivity among the inmates to commit crimes again.
In Tamil Nadu, available figures show a declining incidence of recidivism. During 2006-2008, it came down from 15 percent to 12 percent although the national average is still a low 8.2 percent (as of 2010, according to National Crime Records Bureau). However, the district-wise figures show very high disparity with some districts such as Cuddalore and Trichy showing incidence of repeat offences as high as 50 and 47 percent respectively and Kanyakumari showing no such instances.
More than reducing recidivism and reintegration, education has a cascading effect on overall efforts at prison rehab. As a 2008 study notes, “education may be fundamental to other correctional goals. It may be a prerequisite to the success of many of the other kinds of prison rehabilitation programs.”
“The more literate the inmate, the more he or she may benefit from all other forms of training. Thus, the link between correctional education and successful post- release outcomes may have many paths which analysts do not consider when they evaluate education programs independent of its other influences.”
In this context, Perarivalan and Murugan are interesting examples given their journey from convicts on death row for the most sensational crime in the country to poster boys of prison rehabilitation.