As I open my eyes to the light of a new day, I wake dazed and confused. I wonder where I am, what’s going on, and why I am sleeping on a cloth pallet on the floor? Within minutes I remember where I am and why I am here. I then remember the project for my boss is due today. I have to present a training module plan for low level guards in the Tihar Prison. Tihar is a maximum security prison in New Delhi, and one of the largest prisons in India. The weeks leading to today have been an adventurous mix of change, stress and exhaustion. I anxiously awaited the opportunity to show my boss the work I had prepared.
After scarfing down a breakfast of masala chips and Frootie mango juice, I quickly shower, shave, brush my teeth, and hurry out the door. As I make my way to metro train, I receive my daily dose of inquisitive stares. Occasionally I get a warm hello from a complete stranger, but mostly just stares. But, today is different. A curious gentleman breaks protocol. He sits by me and asks where I am from. He goes on to ask how I am, and what type of music I like. This is a pleasant departure from my usual morning routine. When I reach my destination, I exit the train station, and take a rickshaw to the front gate of Tihar prison.
As per my boss’s instructions, I give the guard my name and tell him I am there to work with the non-profit organization, Turn Your Concern into Action (TYCIA). With a puzzled look on his face, the guard asks me to wait while he radios headquarters. As I wait for several minutes, I begin speaking with other guards about my background. After learning that I am American, they ask if I have American money on me to show. I pull out a dollar for them to see. Excited, they want to learn more about U.S. currency and my life in America. They really warm up after realizing that I am American. Moments after sharing my citizenship, I step onto the prison grounds.
Finally inside, I proceed to a large conference room to meet with my boss and mentor Mohit. He’s the co-founder of TYCIA and served as an AIF Clinton Fellow in 2013-14. Mohit co-founded TYCIA in 2011 as a project to educate children not enrolled in school in order to create a pathway for them to enter the educational system. As the organization grew, TYCIA added a livelihoods program for tribal farmers, an early childhood development and healthcare intervention, and a youth empowerment project by working with incarcerated youth.
While waiting for Mohit to arrive, I begin to strike up conversation with the other people in the room. During our exchange, I find out that most of them are social workers involved in an aspect of the same project I am affiliated with – the Transforming Tihar Fellowship. This project is part of a non-profit and governmental partner program in Tihar designed to help rehabilitate and advocate for prisoner’s rights.
After a while, Mohit arrives, hurried and out of breath. For the last three hours he had been bombarded with meeting after meeting from various officials in the prison bureaucracy. Anxious to share my work, I enthusiastically greet him. We spend a few minutes talking and he quickly tells me he has to rush to another meeting. Before leaving, he gives me another assignment, and we agree on a five-day deadline. Moments later, he is gone. Because of the rush, we never even got to discuss the training session plan I had drafted for the guards.
So, what’s the point of this story? It illustrates my initial experience working in India’s social development sector macroscopically, and in Tihar Prison microscopically: Things don’t always go as you expect them to. So far, there have been no easy victories.
My project with Tihar Prison is challenging in many ways. Although I am supposed to work with prisoners, it is difficult to get access to them due to restrictions. As a foreigner, for example, it is very difficult for me to receive clearance to interact with prisoners. Therefore, my work so far has involved strategizing for TYCIA specific projects in Tihar instead. I have worked on two specific projects since my arrival two months ago. The first is a prisoner’s rights seminar for lower level guards. The second is an empathy seminar for the same guards. I am responsible for curriculum design and implementation. As mentioned earlier, my project is part of a bigger initiative by a team of eight non-profit and governmental organizations working in Tihar. Although the collective has no formal name yet, the group works on quality of life for prisoners in Tihar. The collective began in early 2017, and has to date initiated the Better Life Prison School in Tihar. The aim of the school is to restructure the rehabilitation program in Tihar Prison through unconventional methods in order to successfully reintegrate prisoners into society after they’ve served their term. Partnering programs in the school include TYCIA, Pratham, Primero Skills and Training, Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), Vipasanna, the Urivi Vikram Charitable Trust (UVCT), Society for Promotion of Youth & Masses (SPYM), and FAME. The school caters to young male inmates aged 18-21. The curriculum is based on a holistic concept of education and life skills training. Each organization contributes their unique skill set and expertise to the project.
Unable to work directly with prisoners, I’m instead working with the non-profit coalition on the next big project. This one entails the creation of a manual for prisoners’ rights. The goal is to create a manual which contains various activities that can be practiced with lower level prison guards. The activities focus on themes of humane prisoner care and treatment. In order to create the manual, the non-profit coalition is hosting a number of pilot sessions with Tihar prison staff. These will help determine the effectiveness and feasibility of the curriculum. As mentioned earlier, I have been an active member of this initiative by designing sessions on prisoners’ rights and empathy. Upon successful launch, TYCIA and the non-profit community in Tihar hope to distribute this manual across India. While the design aspect of these projects is fun and rewarding for me, the implementation phase turns out to be more challenging.
In Tihar prison, outsiders are viewed with distrust and suspicion. The air of suspicion makes progress difficult. For non-profits like TYCIA, implementing projects to help prisoners can be tricky. To get things done, tact and diplomacy must be used at all times – no matter the speed at which things progress. Sometimes, the time spent in building relations and negotiating deals delays the process of action. But at the same time, these relationships are the basis of being able to implement our projects at Tihar prison in the first place. This is the very reason my boss was distracted when I wanted to share my projects. He was preoccupied with speaking with officials – because without their buy-in, our project would never see the light of day. As often the case with any big project: bureaucracy, hierarchy and rank may pose obstacles to implementing projects that can affect real change, and thus need to be carefully maneuvered.
Despite these difficulties, I have met a number of people who share my passion to affect positive change. I’ve had the honor of interacting with many fine people who work tirelessly to improve the lives of Tihar prisoners. In India, there is a concept known as Jugaad. Roughly translated, Jugaad means “things will get done one way or another.” Although I could not share my drafts the first day I met with Mohit, I ultimately did; and they were favorably received. Mohit gave me valuable and positive feedback. I credit my Jugaadesque experience to committed social workers, TYCIA staff, other AIF Fellows, an open-minded Prison Director General, and a number of hard-working prison staff.
My first eight weeks have been a real adventure. I’ve learned a lot in a very short time. I see a great challenge before me, but I am optimistic and encouraged by all the wonderful people I have met who share my commitment to leaving the world a better place. Despite challenging obstacles, I am motivated to move forward. Difficult situations produce great resolve and character. Each of my past difficult global experiences has repeatedly made this point clear to me. I look forward to growing in India as well.