Open prison has the potential to turn the retributive form of punishment into a rehabilitative form. This idea is strongly advocated by activist Smita Chakraburtty.

Chakraburtty is an independent researcher studying the prison systems across the country. Currently, she is the Honorary Prison Commissioner to study the Open Prison Systems of Rajasthan. “Absolute confinement and more criminalization is not the solution to crime,” she says.

Excerpts from an interview with The Citizen:

How far do you think the concept of open prison is useful? How can it turn as a retributive form of punishment to a rehabilitative form?

Open prison allows the prisoners to live at their own liberty. Since, they live with their family members they maintain the code of conduct because if they do not, they very well know they will have to go back to the closed prison which isn’t desirable to them at all and therefore, they act responsibly. When a person is getting an agency that is allowing him or her to take a correct decision every moment of the day and which is allowing to retain his or her own liberty, it is surely an empowering experience. This is the reason I believe it is reformative and rehabilitative in nature than retributive in nature.

On April 2017, K.S Jhaveri, executive chairman of the Rajasthan’s Honorary Commissioner of prisons and you had to conduct a study of open prisons of Rajasthan. What did you derive from it?

To be specific to Rajasthan, open prisons are trust based system. We have a very wrong notion about the prisoners. It is an upbringing by our society. Open prisons are free of domestic violence. The posh locality where Iam staying now, there are a lot of educated people residing in but still the place isn’t free of domestic violence but open prisons are. Moreover, open prisons are much cheaper than the closed prison. I have done a comparative study between open and closed prison and therefore, it was what I concluded.

Open Prison allows prisoners to live on their own liberty. Since it is a trust-based system, don’t you think the prisoners might take a drastic step in breaching the faith in the first place?

No. I mean there can be an aberration. One in a thousand prisoners might breach the trust but nobody would want to stay in a confinement. Open prison is a graded response to crime. If you see the nature of the crime, not everybody has this brilliant idea of perpetuating crime. Most crimes are circumstantial. Let say there is a situation of murder, it might be an unthinkable moment of rage which actually triggered the person to commit the crime. Most of the cases are not planned rather people momentarily lose their sanity. But what is dissatisfying is that you can look at the habitual offender, they have received more than 20 charges of thievery but then again it is his livelihood that turned him into a criminal. Most people carrying out thievery are actually because of the poverty or their social reasons. My question is that why people carrying out petty offenses and grave offenses are treated equally. It’s very true that thievery is a crime but in our society the criminals carrying out smuggling of cocaine or doing international trafficking and a person carrying out thievery, are treated equally. The response by the administration to these offenses is the same. The only response for them is absolute confinement. What Iam trying to propagate is that let’s have a graded response to crime because absolute confinement and more criminalisation is not the solution to crime and as far as they retain their own liberty they would not want to break the trust.

You have carried on several inspections on prisoners. What are your observations for the same?

See, Prisoner’s behaviour is completely different. You stay home, people ask you how you are, where were you, how was your day, anything you need,etc. These are the basic questions asked. But when I ask these questions to the prisoners, they completely break down into tears because nobody has asked them about their whereabouts since ages. I have had conversations with a lot many of the prisoners. In Bihar, I have spoken to more than 30,000 prisoners and over 3,000 prisoners in Rajasthan. They were all well behaved. There wasn’t a single prisoner who misbehaved or spoke harshly.

From various reports,it was noted that comparatively there are few open prisons for women than men. What do you have to say about it?

I think there are fewer open prisons as a whole. In Rajasthan, there are many open prisons for women. Open prison is like a locality. You stay with your family members. It is gender neutral. There can’t be open prisons for only men or only women. It is gender neutral. I do not really endorse this idea that there are fewer open prisons for women than men. There were discriminations between men and women in prison in Bihar but it is not like this now. It is Unfounded as a part of the administration.

Many prisoners of the country believe that they have been just favoured and not that they have any legal rights of their own due to which they are reluctant to get any legal remedies and in most of the cases, they are probably not aware of such remedies. What do you have to say?

Yes, it is very true that not many prisoners are aware of their legal rights but the State Legal Services Authorities have been creating awareness among the prisoners about their legal rights and how they can avail their legal remedies and it has been successful in many states and it is the work of the people seating on the seat to spread awareness. It is a Regular process.

What about the “hardened criminals” ? How can the society even feel secured if the criminals are allowed to live in an open prison? Won’t there be any threat to the society?

The term “hardened criminals” has been totally erased from my mind. I agree that there are people who are convicted for harsh offense but I do not think confinement is a solution for that rather he or she could be given some psychological treatment or counselling. And for the under trial prisoners I would like to say that if the convicted one can stay in an open prison, then the under trials should also. I think everyone does deserve a second chance and open prison is such a chance.

There is a constant mindset build up by the society that they prefer eradicating the criminals than the crime. What do you have to say? How can the mindset be changed with the adoption of “open prisons” in the country?

Open prisons are prisons without walls. There are many prisoners that run barber shops or tea shops ,etc. There are many prisoners who have been working as a Security guard. This is a great social change over the years that we have overlooked. Things will turn better only when people start interacting with the prisoners and develop an understanding among them. The crimes and violences can be reduced only when a prisoner becomes a member of the society. I think everyone deserves a second chance and open prison is that very chance.

You mentioned earlier that you have done a comparative analysis between the open and closed prison. What all did you conclude? Can you speak anything about the fundings of the “open prison” also?

Open Prison is definitely cheaper than the closed ones. I have done a comparative study between a Central prison and an open prison. Open prison is 78 times cheaper than the closed prison because in open prison, the security expenses are completely reduced. In closed prison, there is one prison official per 6 prisoners but in Rajasthan they were operating on a strength of one prison official for 80 prisoners in an open prison. The cost incurred on the security by the administration immediately gets reduced and result is much better in the open prison. The rate of recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend) is negligible in an open prison.