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The value of open prisons in India.

As of February 2008, India ad an incarceration rate of 5 per 100,000, which is one of the lowest in the world. Indian prisons housed 358,368 individuals, including pretrail and remand inmates, who constitute 69.7 percent of the prison population. Nearly 4 percent of inmates are female, less than one-fifth of 1 percent are juveniles under the age of 18 and 1.1 percent are foreigners (International Centre for Prison Studies, Kings College London, 2008).

India is divided into 28 states and seven union territories. (1) The constitution assigns the custody and correction of offenders to the individual states and territories. Day-to-day administration of inmates rests on principles incorporated in the Prisons Act of 1894, the Prisoners Act of 1900 and the Transfer of Prisoners Act of 1950 (Heitzman and Worden, 1995).

Prison conditions vary from state to state. The more prosperous states have better facilities and attempt to provide rehabilitation programs; the poorer ones can afford only the most bare and primitive accommodations. Female inmates are mostly incarcerated in segregated areas of men's prisons. Conditions for holding inmates also vary according to classification. India retains a system set up during the colonial period that mandates different treatment for different categories of inmates. Under this system, foreigners, individuals held for political reasons, and inmates of high caste and class are segregated from lower-class inmates and given better treatment. This treatment includes larger or less-crowded cells, access to books and newspapers, and more and better food. Despite laws that mandate egalitarian treatment of Dalits, (2) a rigid class system that circumvents the spirit of these laws exists within the prison system (Heitzman and Worden, 1995).

India's Demographics

Slightly more than one-third the size of the U.S., India has more than 3.5 times the inhabitants (1.1 billion). India is also a fairly young nation, with half its citizens under the age of 25 (in the U.S., the median age is about 35). India's literacy rate, based on the number of people age 15 and older who can read and write, is 73 percent for males and 48 percent for females. Twenty-five percent of the population lives below the poverty line in this democratically governed federal republic. Eighty percent of the Indian population is Hindu; 13 percent is Muslim; 2 percent is Christian; and 2 percent is Sikh (CIA, 2008).

Open Prisons

India has 1,328 correctional facilities, of which 27 are open prisons. Open prisons, in one form or another, have existed in India for almost half a century. They have developed differently in different states, but prison authorities have always used prison labor in agricultural and other work outside the prison (Penal Reform and Justice Asso-ciation/Penal Reform International, 2002). Open prisons in India can be broadly classified into three categories:

* Open farms, where inmates do farming and agricultural work assigned to them and live in open areas with other eligible inmates.

* Open farms, where inmates do farming and agricultural work assigned to them and live in an open farm area with their families and the families of other eligible inmates.

* Open camps, where inmates work their own trades and occupations, build their own homes and live with their families (PRAJA/PRI, 2002).

Rajasthan. Sanganer Open Camp is one of seven open prisons in Rajasthan state. The seven facilities house 285 inmates. A March 2004 story in InfoChange News & Features begins as follows:

"Jagdish Prasad Sharma begins his day with a prayer. After breakfast he sets about cleaning his truck till it gleams and drives off to work at a stone quarry. When he returns, at 7 pm, he watches his favorite TV show and spends time with his wife. Sharma's life is no different from that of an ordinary man. But there is one big difference. He lives in a prison, where he is currently serving the last part of a 14-year murder sentence."

Sanganer is a village about 15.5 miles from Jaipur, the capital of the northwestern state of Rajasthan. The 150 inmates/residents of Sanganer (including 10 women) have served at least one-third of their sentences; are not serial murderers, professional assassins or rapists; and have not committed crimes against the state or been convicted of drug smuggling.

Some of the inmates build their own houses from their own earnings, pay taxes, pay for water and electricity, and are allowed to go out to work between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. within a 6.2-mile radius. Their children attend nearby schools. They live as they would in their own villages. The prison department has built small two-room cottages for new inmates. Inmates can run their own business, such as selling building materials or transporting goods for local industry, or they are employed by businessmen and traders in the local community. One man, A.K. Sharma, a homeopath who was convicted of murder, runs a modest practice in Sanganer. Others teach at neighboring schools or are vegetable vendors or paanwallahs. (3) The prison in Sanganer is spread across 10 acres and has orderly rows of about 150 cement houses, tin sheds and thatched cottages (Centre for Communication and Development Studies, 2004).

The use of open prisons in India started when Rajasthan's reformist Gov. Sampoornanand, who served from 1962 to 1967, was inspired by the Hindu film Do Aankhen Baarah Haat (Two Eyes, 12 Hands), which tells the story of a jailer who takes murderers out of a jail to see if they can work their own farm. "The Rajasthan government started the Sri Sampoornanand Khula Bandi Shivir (open jail), named after the governor, on an experimental basis in 1963. Up until the 1980s, inmates were allowed out from dawn to dusk to engage in agricultural work. A decade later, the government made it compulsory for convicted offenders to live with their families in jail as an important step toward their rehabilitation" (Centre for Communication and Development Studies, 2004).

According to the Penal Reform and Justice Association (PRAJA), an Indian NGO affiliated with Penal Reform International (PRI), more than one-third of the families have television sets. Many also have farm animals and sell the milk from their cows on the open market. Offenders' families can have houseguests who may come and go as they please and do not have to "keep hours" as do the offenders. Several weddings have taken place at the camp, with everyone (including people from the village) pitching in to make the events successful.

The camp has two correctional officers and a low boundary wall. According to local police constable Bajrang Lai Meena, though the camp is run on a relationship of trust, it is very disciplined. Besides being less expensive to operate than a traditional prison, the open camp is praised for its rehabilitative success. "Everyone is anxious to get rid of prisoners," says Chandra Shekhar, Rajasthan's Minister of Jails. "The police to the courts, the courts to the prison. Somebody has to rehabilitate them and the open camp in Rajasthan is one way of doing this" (Centre for Communication and Development Studies, 2004).

Kerala. The open prison in the state of Kerala on the coast of southwestern India is an example of a slightly different type of open prison; the inmates do not live with their families. There are more security staff and security procedures, though the operation of the facility is still based on treating the inmates with respect and giving them responsibility, especially in terms of their work on the rubber plantation.

The prison is situated on 300 acres of land, and there are no fences or surveillance towers. In the first 35 years of operation, there was only one escape and one repeat offender. As an Earthwatch Gaia Fellow in 1994, American author Jim Merkel noted the atmosphere of the prison as peaceful and relaxed. When he asked the warden how the inmates were treated, the warden laughed and said, "We have to treat them nicely, they are all murderers" (Merkel, 2000).

The Kerala open prison is based on Gandhi's principle of "equality of religions," which taught respect for all religious faiths. Therefore, Kerala open prison does not recognize the caste system and encourages the expression of personal faith at the mosque, church or temple, Merkel observed.

Inmates are required to work on the self-supporting prison's 200-acre rubber plantation, tapping rubber, preparing rubber sheets and cultivating rice paddies. Each inmate works four to six hours a day and is paid for his or her work. The harvested rubber brings in an additional 3,000,000 rupees (about $75,000), which covers annual expenses for running the prison. The remaining money goes back to the Kerala state government (Merkel, 2000).

Inmates are allowed to spend one month out of six at home with their families. Five-day leaves are granted in the event of a family member's death, wedding or other important occasion. While in the prison, inmates can have visits from their families on weekends.

Advantages and Limitations

The advantages of open prisons in India are both practical and philosophical. From a practical standpoint, they are less costly than traditional prisons and often profitable for the state. They could help reduce crowding since they are relatively easy to establish and require few staff. Philosophically, open prisons are more humane and reduce the time inmates spend in locked rooms. They are much more effective in keeping families together and help give offenders a sense of social responsibility. According to a Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission on jail reforms chaired by Justice A.N. Mulla in the early 1980s, the open prison gives inmates an effective exercise in self-reliance, cooperation and community living in a family atmosphere. The commission recommended that each state in India develop an institution such as Sanganer. The commission noted that the purpose of an open camp is to:

* Minimize the damage of punishment;

* Let the community see the offender at close quarters;

* Lay bare an offender's day-today behavior to reveal that not every person who has committed a crime is hardened, vicious and unrelenting;

* Hand responsibility back to the offender;

* Demonstrate that the presence of family has a moderating effect on the offender; and

* Show that offending, punishing, restoring and compensating are all part of the social process (PRAJA/PRI, 2002).

PRI, which has studied the open prisons in India and supports them, lists the following limitations for the use of open prisons:

* Open prisons are likely to succeed only in societies where the family has a role to play;

* They have limited success with female offenders. Whereas a man's family is happy to unite with him, in a female offender's case, the family in all likelihood would rather abandon her;

* Open camps can only succeed ff they are well explained to the public and the community, which is becoming increasingly vindictive as tension and terror increases in society; and

* Victims and their families feel outraged by such measures, which are seen as "soft" options (PRAJA/PRI, 2002).

PRI summarizes that the long-term value of open prisons is perhaps not in their capacity or ability to totally replace the traditional prison as an institution but in the underlying suggestion that newer ways and innovations do work, if there is a will to make them work.


Centre for Communication and Development Studies. 2004. Sanganer's no-bars prison gives criminals a new lease of life. InfoChange News & Features. (March). Available at

CIA. 2008. India. In The 2008 World Factbook. Washington, D.C.: CIA. Available at https://

Heitzman, James and Robert L. Worden, eds. 1995. India: A country study. Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress, Federal Research Division. (September).

International Centre for Prison Studies, Kings College London. 2008. Prison Brief for India. In World Prison Brief Online. London: King's College London. Available at depsta/law/research/icps/worldbrief/wpb_co untry.php?country=94.

Merkel, J. 2000. Prison without walls. In Context (The Ecology of Justice), No. 38. Langley, Wash.: Context Institute.

Penal Reform and Justice Association/Penal Reform International. 2002. 'Open Prisons' in India: How open can open be? Gurgaon, India: Penal Reform and Justice Association; London: Penal Reform International.


(1) Territories in India are subnational administrative divisions. Unlike the states that have their own governments, union territories are ruled directly by the federal national government.

(2) Dalit is a Sanskrit word meaning burst, split, broken, crushed or destroyed. But, since the 19th century, it is often taken to mean downtrodden, used in reference to Untouchables (Harijans), outcastes, Scheduled Castes and others living in a reduced social state.

(3) Paanwallahs sell paan, a varying mix of areca nuts, cardamom, lime paste, tobacco and other flavors wrapped in a betel pepper leaf.

Gary Hill is president of CEGA Services Inc., and an international consultant in crime prevention, criminal justice and corrections.
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Title Annotation:International
Author:Hill, Gary
Publication:Corrections Compendium
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 1, 2008
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