Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Abdul Rahman Khan is a kid born to a poor family in the Nizamuddin neighborhood of Central Delhi. When Abdul was three years old his father, who struggled with alcoholism and depression, fell from a balcony during a drunken rage while beating Abdul’s mother. Abdul, the second to youngest of his mother’s four children, witnessed the whole thing first hand. Within days of his death, the father was buried in a small unceremonious ceremony, and life continued. His mother, who already worked two jobs, was now forced to take a third job to attempt pay school fees for her oldest ten-year-old son and provide food for her family. Abdul and his two-year-old sister were watched by their seven-year-old sister while his mother worked. During the day, Abdul’s mother would clean homes from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. From 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Abdul’s mother worked as a bathroom cleaner in government buildings in Central Delhi. When his mother returned home from work, she would bring home rice and lentils for her children to eat. Her daughter handled all of the cooking. At night, after the children were supposed to be sleep, Abdul’s mother would engage in prostitution with men from the community and government offices to try and make ends meet for the children. Although she hated life, she saw no other way to survive.
Throughout most of Abdul’s life, this was his existence. When Abdul was ten years old his older brother, who then worked at a construction site to support the family, died from a falling steel beam. When he was twelve years old, his older sister ran away from home and was never heard from again. When Abdul was thirteen, a local drug dealer offered Abdul a job in dealing drugs. As he, his mother, and sister were desperate for money, Abdul took the job. Abdul, who only attended school to the second standard, had engaged in small theft most of his life. At school, his teachers labeled him as a delinquent due to his violent outbursts and unhygienic countenance. Consequently, during the day, he and his younger sister would roam the street begging for food, and pickpocket unsuspecting individuals. At night, Abdul would sell drugs and spend time with local drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes. By 15, Abdul not only sold drugs, but he also used them. Additionally, he progressed from pickpocketing to burglarizing homes and stealing vehicles. The need to feed his family and drug addiction motivated him. Throughout his whole life Abdul never received a psychiatric evaluation, never left Delhi, rarely left the Nizamuddin, and constantly fought to survive. On Abdul’s 18th birthday, he and some friends from his block celebrated by drinking and shooting heroin. During the celebration, a drunken friend of Abdul’s slapped Abdul’s sister when she refused his advances. Livid, Abdul stabbed the friend twice before being restrained by friends. Unfortunately for all parties, a police patrol was walking outside of the party and heard the commotion. After entering the premises and observing the scene, the police arrested Abdul and many others at the celebration. Within days of the stabbing, Abdul, unfortunately, found himself confined to a cell of Jail #5 in Tihar Prison.
Upon his arrival to the prison, Abdul felt shell-shocked. He did not know how he got into the position he was in. He only did what he knew from his experiences. Life never taught him the lessons of temperance and civility. All he knew was survival. His first few weeks in Tihar were unbearable. Other inmates and guards tormented him. He was abused by repeat offenders, and he had no contact with anyone else he knew. Life was very difficult for him. However, one day while speaking with an inmate in a ward close to his, he heard about the Better Life Prison School. From his friend, he heard that the school provided a chance to an education that he was deprived of at a young age. Anxious to get out of his predicament, he decided to attend a class.
Although the story of Abdul is completely fictional, it is a story that is not dissimilar to the story of many inmates in the Better Life Prison School. Although the unfortunate reality of inequity is unlikely to change, there is hope for the convicted to have a new lease on life.
Beginning in September 2017, the Better Life Prison School launched classes in Jail #5 of Tihar Prison. The vision of the school is to restructure the inmate reformation process through an unconventional educational model. The model focuses on reformation, rehabilitation and reintegration’ of young inmates of Tihar Jail through holistic education, skill building, and life skills intervention. The benefactors are inmates aged 18 to 21 years old housed at Central Jail #5 of Tihar. At its onset, a coalition of eight Civil Society Organizations came together to form the school. The TYCIA Foundation was the groundbreaking organization and contributes to the school through providing school educators via its Transforming Tihar Fellowship. Pratham contributes to the program through technical development, curriculum development, and teacher training. Primero Skill and Training contributes to the school by contributing a skill-building center which provides classes on life-skills like hospitality and beauty care. KVIC contributes to the project by hosting sessions on bee-keeping, soap making, and incense making to make inmates more employable. UVCT and Protsathan help with life skills classes by covering the topics of optimism, ethics, vipassana, and conflict resolution. Drug de-addiction support is provided by SPYM, and Healthcare support is facilitated by FAME.
Over the course of the past few months, the school and organizations working in Tihar have met both success and challenges. To date, the school has held classes for over 1,500 inmates inside Jail #5. Generally, the reception by the inmates is well received. As inmates are aged 18-21, the maturity level of the students varies. Some students are disruptive and some are very interested in using the opportunity to grow. The TYCIA educators who work with the non-profits are very intentional with classroom management. When the educators first began working in the Better Life Prison School, the trust level between the inmates and the educators was limited. However, with time, there has been a level of trust developed between inmates and educators. In the Jail #5 one specific story sticks out as very striking.
Recently, one of the educators in Jail #5 began to build a relationship with a specific inmate. The relationship began because the educator elected this particular student to be the student leader of the class. The student’s maturity and work ethic motivated the educator to appoint him to the position. As the two grew closer, the student opened up about his experience. Three years ago, the student was arrested for sexual relations with a minor. At the time, the student had just turned 18, and he was dating a 17-year-old girl who was a few months younger. They were both from a rural village. However, when the parents of the girl found out about the actions they strongly disapproved. Although the girl protested, the parents insisted that she file a police report against the student. After the girl filed the report, the boy began the process of lengthy legal proceedings which often meant that he was forced to travel long distances. While in the midst of the legal battle his mother passed away. His father had passed when he was a young child and he and his mother were forced to provide for his younger siblings. During the legal preceding the student could only financially support his family in a limited manner. His mother loss took a major toll on his emotional and mental health. The student suspects that his limited financial contribution and legal troubles brought stress that contributed to his mother’s death. After going through such trauma with no emotional or psychological assistance, the student got into a fight with the older brothers of his ex-girlfriend. During the fight, he severely hurt the brothers and was arrested for attempted murder. After this offense, he was immediately sent to Tihar on all three charges. When he first arrived in Tihar, he was scared, hurt, and full of anger. When he first met our TYCIA instructor, he had serious problems with anger. However, through the Better Life Prison School and an intention to do well for himself, the student found a new lease on life. He actively works with school and finds solace through interacting with staff. Additionally, his good behavior has caught the eye of prison officials, and there is a serious consideration of reducing his sentence.
The story of this inmate and a number of others illuminates the good work being carried out in the Better Life Prison School. However, the school is also facing some challenges. Recently one of the primary donors to the school fell into disagreement with Tihar Prison on Better Life Prison School oversight. Consequently, funding to the school was drastically cut and there is a need for a new primary donor. Due to falling monetary support, many organizations working in the prison are inactive until funding arrives.
Many people fall into unfortunate circumstances in life. Life choices, social position, and unfortunate circumstances can make some people more prone to incarceration than others. Despite mistakes, people should be given a chance to a new lease on life. The story of the hypothetical Abdul and the actual inmate of Jail #5 illustrate how some people just need a little help to overcome difficult odds. The Better Life Prison School is a unique institution that caters to this unique need. I am hopeful that the Better Life Prison School will be able to overcome this challenging season to continually change lives.