Continuing from our successful trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh, PRI’s Honorary President, Dr. Rani Shankardass and I travelled to Kolkata, capital of the Indian State of West Bengal, on Friday evening, 4 May.
While PRI’s work in Bangladesh is well documented, we have not undertaken any work in the Indian state of West Bengal before. On Saturday 5 May for the first time PRI engaged with prison authorities in West Bengal and explored ideas for carrying out further work in the state.
First we went to the Regional Institute of Correctional Administration (RICA) and met the Director, Mr Ramakrishnan. RICA is the training institute for all the eastern states of India and provides training to management and staff of correctional services in nine states. The Director welcomed inputs from PRI to further strengthen the training curriculum with components relating to international human rights standards and principles.
RICA has impressive training facilities including residential capacity for up to 25 trainees. One idea which we discussed was the possibility of RICA hosting a training workshop for prison personnel from Bangladesh. Bangladesh currently does not have any training facility for prison staff, and given the proximity of the two cities (Kolkata can be reached from Dhaka by bus in under five hours) and the added advantages of a shared language and culture, such an exchange would have many benefits and would cost very little.
The second visit was to the Alipore Central Correctional Home (see photo below), one of India’s oldest prisons, built in 1906 and home to some of India’s greatest political leaders (including India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru). Today the prison has a capacity for nearly 2000 inmates and houses almost exactly that number. The prisoners are all male, with nearly half awaiting trial and the rest being convicted prisoners including those on life sentences and a small number awaiting the death penalty.
We met the Deputy Head of the West Bengal prison service, Ms Bhattacharya (who is one of a handful of very senior managers in the Indian prison service as a whole) together with the Head of Alipore Prison. Both were forthcoming in relating problems faced by the prison service including crucially the inability of the service to attract and retain qualified personnel. Pay and conditions for prison staff remain very poor and the service continues to languish at the bottom of the public sector hierarchy in India, which is a problem PRI has seen in its work throughout the world. The other problem recounted was the slowness of the justice delivery process with those awaiting trial remaining in prison for anything between 3 – 8 years.
The treatment of lifers is also an issue, with many having served the mandatory 14-year sentence but unable to obtain release or parole thereafter. In this context it was agreed that PRI would help facilitate information exchange relating to good practice on working with lifers, particularly the practice of village camps (open prisons housing lifers who have completed a third of their sentence and whose stay in the camps helps with the process of rehabilitation and eventual release). Such camps are already operational in another part of India and have been extensively documented by PRI and could provide a possible model for use in the West Bengal context.
Nikhil Roy, 10 May 2012