The selection process of the Banyan Impact Fellowship is a journey of its own with multiple stages, various rounds of interviews and of course, who can forget the initial extensive application that everyone has to submit. One of the stages includes a detailed list of the projects, out of which prospective Fellows have to give their preferences. I have a Master’s in Human Rights and I really wanted to work on a project which involves that aspect. At this stage, I came across a project with an organization working in the field of prison reform and rehabilitation of prisoners, and I was immediately interested because it seemed like a unique opportunity. The matching process worked in my favor and I’m currently working for the very same organization i.e. TYCIA Foundation (Turn Your Concern Into Action) and my project is to design a Fellowship which would ultimately work towards reduction of crimes and violence against women.
The Unique Selling Point of this new fellowship, the Unlearn Fellowship, is the fact that it will also act as a means of rehabilitation and reformation of ex-inmates. My host organization has carefully selected released prisoners who are on the path of reform and wish to become social leaders themselves. These ex-inmates are given the title of Peer Fellows and each Senior Fellow will be paired with them, so that they can work as a team in the communities. After 4 months of designing, planning, collaborating and creating various aspects of the Unlearn Fellowship, our project kicked off on April 15th 2022, with a warm welcome of our Peer Fellows.
We have four Peer Fellows for the Class of 2022 – Anil, Anshu, Ravi and Jatin (names changed for the purpose of anonymity). All of them have served time in Central Jail No. 5 of Tihar Prison, which is a separate jail for younger inmates in the 18–21 year age group. We welcomed them in the office and did a few interactive sessions with them.
We started off with Two Truths and a Lie, which was a fun ice breaker followed by Dumb Charades and an activity called Draw a Story. The process included each person drawing something random and then circulating their sheets to the next person without any additional input. At the end, what resulted was completed drawings where every person in the group tried to make a coherent story and they made the effort to take the drawing in the direction where they hoped the original person had intended. We had some unexpected insights about teamwork, collaboration, and looking at the bigger picture as a result. This was followed by giving the Peer Fellows Letters of Appointment designed by me and clicking their photographs for the purpose of identity cards, so that they can be formally integrated as Fellows of the Unlearn Fellowship.
Our session concluded with a Biryani lunch which started off as a general interaction but soon led to a deeper conversation with the ex-inmates. I’ve interacted with many people in my life, some who are experts in their fields, some with years of experience, and some with a lot of knowledge. But sitting in that room and listening to the experiences of these ex-inmates was an eye-opening experience for me and I’m taking many valuable life lessons from that day.
One of the Peer Fellows shared that it’s the little things that pinch them the most, things that they never expected would affect them. Looking at their older parents coming to visit them for a Mulakat (the term used in prisons when friends and family come to visit the inmates) and knowing that they must’ve waited for hours for a short conversation with their son really bothered Anil. He requested his father not to come again even though he wanted to see him because he couldn’t bear to see what his family was going through. Nonetheless, his father came to visit him whenever he could. His sister’s marriage was put on hold indefinitely and his brother had to drop out of college to support the family through work. This is what pushes him to work and build a respectable identity for himself.
Anshu mentioned that Mulakat sessions with the family members of new inmates are very hard. When he was new, other inmates had asked him to get some things from his family members. Since he was new, he couldn’t say no and his parents made serious efforts to get him a simple pair of slippers simply because he had asked for them. But once inside the prison, those slippers were taken away by someone else entirely.
Ravi distinctly remembers the way inmates were taken to the examination center. He is pursuing his Bachelor’s degree through correspondence and shared that all the inmates who were giving exams were taken in handcuffs, surrounded by policemen watching them from all sides, and making a running video recording to ensure proof in case anyone attempts to run. He said that it always felt like he was committing some serious offence instead of simply taking exams.
For Jatin, the way policemen grab their hands in a tight grip by crossing their fingers around them was unexpected. He said that it doesn’t look like much but the hold is actually very solid so that even a slight attempt at running away can be caught quickly with the capacity to immediately hurt the one in custody. What stood out to me was the way Jatin followed the sharing of this incident with a sympathetic note towards the policemen saying that it’s not their fault as well, and he understands that it’s their job to ensure that no one runs away on their duty and this is what they have been trained for.
The way they all talk about the pandemic as a boon honestly brings a smile to one’s face. They were all lucky to get bail from prison due to Covid and they hold their freedom close to their hearts. At the same time, how the judiciary has functioned during the pandemic is a complaint by all. Ravi is simultaneously working for the advocate who has taken up his case and shared that all the money he earns goes towards the fees of the advocate. The fact that there was a gap of 4-5 months between each hearing during the pandemic has dragged on his case for much longer than expected. Ravi’s case is being discussed since 2018 and has reached the argument stage now, in 2022. But he is hopeful of a resolution soon. The Peer Fellows mentioned that everyone in prison quickly develops legal knowledge and almost all of them can help each other out by estimating the duration in prison and bail time, according to the IPC (Indian Penal Code) sections applied to them.
Talking about their time in prison, Anil shared that the administration is directly responsible for the living conditions of the prisoners. Like many other institutions, corruption and red tape plague the prison system as well. Since prisons naturally house convicted prisoners, various gangs operate in these spaces and actively use prisons to further criminal activity and new recruitment into illegal activities. Corruption is rampant and for the right price and through the right connections, everything is available inside the walls of the prison, be it mobile phones or restaurant-cooked food. Both Anil and Anshu shared that many gangs encouraged them to live an easy life of crime but they politely declined because they truly regretted their actions which came from ignorance and didn’t want to go down that road again. Anil also shared that homosexuality is a common occurrence inside the prison and consent is meaningless. New inmates are especially vulnerable to this. Prison can be a shock and an unexpectedly traumatic time, especially for those who are suddenly thrust into that environment at a young age.
During our interactions, Jatin suddenly said he lost a lot of milk in prison. When I asked him what he meant, he said that since they have nothing that they own, any game or bet is made in terms of owing their glasses of milk to each other. While we were playing Two Truths and a Lie, Jatin also made it a point to share that he has completely left alcohol and is currently 3 months sober. He also had a proper red tilak on his forehead because he regularly goes to the temple and makes sure to pray every day.
While munching on the biryani we were having for lunch, Anil shared that he really values rice and soft rotis now. A delicious home-cooked meal is equivalent to heaven for him since the quality of food in prison needs significant improvement. There were moments when one could see that the time spent in the prison still has a strong hold on Anil. Later, the others made sure to guide him, telling him to not overthink the past and to move on and appreciate the freedom he has now.
Anshu described that at times he doesn’t realize that he’s actually out in the real world. He shared that he used to dream about this and always felt that it would never happen for him. And even today, he wakes up in the morning and it takes him a moment to register that he’s free. The other three agreed with this statement and added with a shudder that whenever they hear a loud sound like that of a bell, they feel like they’re right back inside.
Eventually, Ravi stated a very poignant thought which I believe is a worthy note to conclude on. He shared that life has the capacity to completely change in a matter of seconds. We talk about days and months, but a few seconds are all it takes to transform life from good to bad or from bad to worse. One wrong decision, one badly thought-out action, one ignorant choice, or one offhand remark, all of these can be potentially life-ruining moments, and therefore, one must value the here and now. We need to count our blessings and make the most of what we have, in the present.
I gained a lot of learnings in the span of one afternoon and I hope that as the Fellowship progresses, I get more such opportunities. They’ve helped me understand the value of life, instilled gratitude in me for what I have, and shown me the capacity for change and willingness to improve in human beings. I understand that life is not black or white, but shades of grey abound all around us. I might just change my stance on second chances at the end of this Fellowship. While their impact is pronounced, I’m also trying to challenge their deep instilled beliefs about women and issues related to gender. I hope to impact their life in a positive manner and inspire them to live a better life, away from crime and violence for them personally and towards the betterment of society as a whole.
The above images are of the day I met our Peer Fellows for the first time and that’s when I realized that I’m going to be learning a lot from them and the time I spend with them is what will make the Fellowship journey memorable for me. I’m glad that I have a visual reminder of how far I’ve come in my friendship with them. I hope that the Peer Fellows gain something out of the Fellowship and that their time and resources are well spent in the coming months. I’m looking forward to a successful orientation and training sessions in the coming weeks, and to making the first-ever Unlearn Fellowship a success.