In the criminal justice system where one is grappling with the issue of serving timely justice, a discussion on the rehabilitation of prisoners may seem futile. The term rehabilitation in a correctional setting is apparently a romanticized word. Hence rehabilitation is one of the contentious aspects of criminology and penology.
From criminal justice, perspective rehabilitation is the act of restoring something to its original state. The noun ‘rehabilitation’ comes from the Latin prefix re-, meaning “again” and habitare, meaning “make fit”. Contextually, the term ‘rehabilitation’ implies the process of helping an offender or a prisoner to readjust to his former roles and responsibilities and readapt to the society. In words of a women prisoner “Rehabilitation for me means getting reunited with my children and that I am able to take care of them” (Convicted woman inmate, India, closed prison).
Crime and punishment have been important aspects while designing rehabilitation strategies. With each passing year not only the concept of crime and punishment has changed but so have our intervention strategies. It is believed that in the 19th century the concept of reformation had started in the western countries, and in India, the notion of reformation and rehabilitation came forth after the Indian Jail Committee 1919-20 was set up.
The Indian prison system has various guidelines and policies which highlight the issue of rehabilitation and aftercare and so does the international treaties yet the movement of rehabilitation of prisoners still seems to be at a nascent stage. It still lacks the attention of policymakers and social planners for the welfare, well-being and rehabilitation of prisoners and this has been visible in many forums and the most recent being the Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) -2030. Many of the goals of SDGs on poverty, education, elderly population and so on are linked with the criminal justice system. Specifically, Goal 16 which states to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. This goal clearly indicates a ‘peaceful and inclusive society’ and for that, trust has to be made between the citizens and the criminal justice system. And ‘justice for all’, and safeguarding not just the prisoners but their children who reside with them inside the prison and their families. Sadly, there has been no mention about the prisons, prisoners or the children of prisoners neither in the goals or the indicators.
Based on the researcher’s thesis in the Indian context, it can be stated that rehabilitation is an umbrella term in a correctional setting which encompasses the reformative activities in form of life-skills, education, vocational training, art, music, dance and so on. The phrase ‘Reformation of prisoners’ is at times widely used and implied in the prison institutions in the light of keeping the inmates busy and to ensure that they do not get involved in any form of anti-social activities inside the prisons. This at times dilutes the very essence of reformation. Ideally while planning reformation and rehabilitation of inmates one must try to design a programme or intervention which maximizes their involvement to create interest and further help them in bringing a change at a psychological/ emotional level as well as enabling them to develop their skills. But due to the issue of overpopulation inside the Indian prisons, which is also a global concern and scarcity of human and financial resources, the vision of creating individualized plans takes a back seat and the focus becomes on fitting all the individuals in one framework. This at times makes the inmates perceive programmes and classes as an act of while away their time or as a form of punishment.
“Initially I did not pay attention to what activities were been conducted inside the ward. I would either get into fights or would play Ludo (board game) but ever since I have started participating in activities my thought process has changed towards being more positive, I feel encouraged to learn more” (Reflection by an undertrial male, District prison, India)
From a rehabilitation perspective, the researcher would like to highlight and signify the importance of the three correctional settings that is closed prison, semi-open prison and open prison/ open camps. How these three can support in a step by step preparation of prisoner back into the society i.e. in their rehabilitation and reintegration.
Inside the Indian prisons, as discussed the activities f orm an important component of in-prison reformation strategies besides the prison culture and the environment. Theorists, such as Clemmer who has coined the term ‘prisonisation,’ have discussed the negative impact of longer length of imprisonment on the prisoners. Thus, through correct channelizing of energies and thoughts through physical, spiritual, educational, skill-based activities, these activities have been known to have a positive impact on the self-image of the person.
Another important setting is a step towards rehabilitation and reintegration are the semi-open jails and open prisons/ open camps. Approximately, in India, we only have 63 open jails and one semi-open jail (no specific document was found on semi-open jail and neither were the figures mentioned in the Prison Statistic of India). These institutions are known as prisons with minimal or no walls. The essence of these institutions is based on ‘trust’ and ‘freedom’. It has been observed that prisoners become more responsible, self-reliant, develop a better self-image and confidence. It helps prisoners reconnect with society and reduce many of the barriers faced by those who are directly released from the closed prison. In the Indian context, only the convicted prisoners are transferred to semi-open and open prisons. Many states still do not have these institutions hence, it becomes a challenge and states which have semi-open or open prisons face issues of timely transfer of convicted prisoner’s due to lack of space and resources. Further, as a suggestion, semi-open and open jails must be extended to undertrials as well especially women prisoners, elderly prisoners and medically unfit prisoners.
Introspection by prisoners of semi-open jail, India
Many inmates disclosed that in closed prisons they used to think and introspect about the crime but many of them would try to rationalize their actions with some or the other justifications. Being in the semi-open jail, many inmates discussed that, they accept their offences and agree that they have made wrong choices but now wish to live a crime-free life and want to become contributing citizens of India. They expressed that for their mistakes their families and, more so, their children have to pay, which is quite painful.
Based on the research in all three settings, an important element which gets neglected by many stakeholders is building on the prisoners cognitive restructuring. This means strengthening of their mental health so that after release they are able to face the hardships and obstacles of the society without falling back into crime. The respondents have appreciated and accentuated the role of their family in shaping themselves, and the second most important factor for this group especially male prisoners is seeking employment and for the female prisoners is acceptance by their family. Across prisons, the mulaquaat system (visitation by family and friends) is seen as an important medium for maintaining familial ties but the focus on parole and furlough seems selective.
The role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the country has been highly appreciated and has contributed immensely towards the reformation and rehabilitation process. Further, the training’s imparted to the prison officials are essential from rehabilitation perspective as it facilitates them to learn and refresh the rules, understand the significance of reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners and helps them dwell on best practices followed nationally and internationally.
Hence, it can be highlighted that rehabilitation is not a linear process and it has many layers and several significant stakeholders play a role in this course of action. The process of rehabilitation begins right from the time of imprisonment and continues much after the release of the prisoners.
Lastly, the researcher would like to suggest that to develop a comprehensive model of rehabilitation the three prisons/correctional settings must be perceived as a continuum of a total unit working towards reformation, rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners.
Guidance on rehabilitation
Rehabilitation and social reintegration of women prisoners: Implementation of the Bangkok Rules
Guidance Document on the UN Nelson Mandela Rules, chapters on rehabilitation