By Swami Divyananda
Swami Divyananda, head of the Malda center in India, has personally been involved in much of the current Ramakrishna Mission work in correctional homes (prisons). The work spans nearly 25 prisons across West Bengal.
This article was first published in 2006 in the March and April issues of Prabuddha Bharata. This is the first of two installments. The second part will appear on this site in August, 2006.
Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations in 2003-04 witnessed the inauguration of several new service programmes by the branch centres of the Ramakrishna Order. These programmes aimed specifically at reaching out to the masses—especially women and the poorer sections of society. It was a remarkable coincidence that Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, Malda, got a chance to initiate a programme of service for the inmates of Malda District Correctional Home during these celebrations; and this programme has since been extended to a number of other correctional homes across West Bengal.
It all began this way: A literacy centre was being conducted at Malda District Correctional Home to help the illiterate inmates gain basic literacy. Unfortunately, it so happened that the teacher conducting the programme got a job as a clerk in the correctional home and the centre was left without a teacher. A local journalist who was on a visit to the place at this time was requested by the inmates to do something to revive the literacy centre. The journalist was a devotee associated with the local Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, and he conveyed the request to us on 2 February 2003. Impressed by the enthusiasm of the inmates of the correctional home we offered to the district magistrate to take over the teaching programme. The district magistrate gave his consent to our proposal the very next day and thus our service programme was launched.
From the very outset we decided not to confine ourselves merely to the giving of ‘knowledge of letters’ but to make our programme more meaningful to the inmates at a personal level. So, besides instructions in basic literacy, our programme also included discussions on issues pertaining to ethics and character-building, sessions on enhancing concentration and the practice of meditation, study of the lives of Swami Vivekananda and other great personalities, recitation of inspiring poetry, and the practice of drawing and other creative arts. The sessions are conducted by the monastics and some senior devotees of the Ashrama and run for two hours every day, six days a week.
A library was also started within the premises of the correctional home. Books are lent out thrice a week. Ashrama volunteers help out with the running of the library. Presently the library has a thousand volumes to meet the reading needs of the three-hundred-odd inmates. Around fifty to sixty volumes are lent out on every working day. But what about those who cannot read? The literate inmates decided to overcome this problem by conducting readings from the lives of great persons every evening in the ten wards of the jail especially for the benefit of the not-yet-literate.
Encouraged by the positive response of the inmates as well as the authorities, the Ashrama decided to extend its services by taking up vocational training courses. Six sewing machines were put up at the correctional home for instruction in tailoring. An expert tailor trains the inmates for two hours, six days a week. Twenty inmates are presently undergoing this training. Another twenty inmates are undergoing training in carpentry with a competent carpenter. Bookbinding is being taught to fifteen inmates twice a week. Agriculture and fishery experts also take special classes for the inmates. As a good number of the inmates are agricultural workers and fishermen, they are expected to benefit from these sessions when they return to their homes and workplaces. Incense stick and candle manufacturing are also being taught. Artistic talent is fostered through drawing and recitation classes. Competent doctors also regularly visit and conduct health-awareness classes on tuberculosis, leprosy, diarrhoeal diseases, snake-bite, drowning and related themes of practical interest to the local community.
For many of the inmates training alone does not ensure a livelihood, as they lack the means to start a fresh entrepreneurial venture on their own. Over the last two and a half years thirty-two inmates trained in tailoring, carpentry and bookbinding have been helped by the Ashrama with machines and tools to set up their own businesses on release.
Soon after this service programme was initiated in the Malda correctional home, several devotees of the Tufanganj Ramakrishna Ashrama (a non-affiliated centre) took up a similar programme at the local correctional home under our guidance. Ramakrishna Math, Cooch Behar, also took up a similar programme with the direct involvement of sadhus and brahmacharins. As the work spread to other correctional homes across West Bengal many devoted volunteers came forward to help. Presently there are about a hundred such highly dedicated and competent volunteers helping out with the successful conduct of the multifarious activities in various correctional homes. They include teachers, headmasters, doctors, engineers and government officials (attached to the departments of land revenue, tribal welfare, geological survey and such others—many of them in top positions). Each of them has been devoting three to four hours of their spare time every week at the correctional homes.
Our vocational-training instructors offer their services at nominal rates (fifteen rupees per hour) paid by the Ashrama. Sri Swapan Saha, the tailoring instructor at Balurghat is himself orthopaedically handicapped. He said to us, ‘I am physically handicapped and these inmates are mentally handicapped. That is why they keep coming back to jail. For a physically handicapped person to be able to help someone mentally handicapped is an opportunity for service. I have my small business to meet my requirements. I will not take a remuneration for this work. Please put the money to some good use.’ Such commitment and concern are a great encouragement to us.
Our work was rapidly extended to other correctional homes across West Bengal—to those at Howrah, Alipore (Kolkata), Siliguri, Raiganj and Islampur (North Dinajpur), Balurghat (South Dinajpur), Krishnanagar (Nadia), Berhampore (Murshidabad), and Seuri (Birbhum). In all of these places we have established libraries with 250-500 books each—in Bengali, Hindi and English. Besides the publications of the Ramakrishna Mission, religious texts like the Quran, Bible, Sermon on the Mount, Jagater Dharmaguru (Religious Teachers of the World), lives of Muslim saints, books on Islamic morals (several of them published in Bangladesh), travelogues, biographies of great personalities, books about scientists and their discoveries, and vocational texts pertaining to art, drawing, agriculture, bee-keeping, pisciculture and animal husbandry are kept in these libraries.
Out of curiosity we once asked the inmates of the Malda correctional home if they were actually reading the books or just borrowing them to glance through. Their reply was prompt: we could question them on the subjects and check for ourselves. Later we organized quiz competitions, and found that hardly any question went unanswered. For instance, in a quiz on Swami Vivekananda fifteen rounds totalling 105 questions failed to resolve the winners; another five rounds were needed for that purpose. We encouraged the participants with prizes for the top three positions. The same thing has been repeated time and again in the other correctional homes.
Two computers have been installed at Alipore Central Correctional Home by the Malda Ashrama, with help from Peerless General Finance and Investment Company, at a total cost of about forty thousand rupees. Besides their use in computer-applications training these computers are also being used for general and spiritual education. Ashrama devotees with specialized knowledge of computers help with the training on weekends.
Ramakrishna Mission Janashiksha Mandir is providing training in tailoring, carpentry, fast-food preparation and two-wheeler repair at Howrah District Correctional Home. The Ramakrishna Mission centres of Tamluk, Contai and Jalpaiguri have also begun welfare work for the local correctional-home inmates.
The correctional homes at Alipore, Malda and Balurghat have some convicted students as inmates. They have been helped to complete their studies with provision of textbooks and special coaching classes conducted by the devotees of the Malda Ashrama. Sri Prabhat Ranjan Ghosh, a teacher of repute, conducts classes in mathematics at the Alipore correctional home, and Dr Kamal Nandi teaches physics. Many other teachers also join them. Several retired officials participating in this teaching activity say that they never got such joy in their working days. They say: ‘The opportunity to work amongst these neglected people, whom we would earlier often consider sinners, has proved very inspiring. If only we had started earlier we would have earned greater punya.’
The Bratachari movement, initiated by the noted civil servant Sri Gurusaday Datta at Seuri in the Birbhum district of West Bengal in 1932, is a comprehensive programme of physical, mental, and intellectual culture based on the best folk traditions of physical exercise, art, dance, drama, music, singing and social service. We encourage the inmates to conduct these programmes within the correctional homes. Sports and games—both indoor and outdoor —for physical fitness are also arranged by the Ashrama. Annual sports meets have been conducted at the Malda, Krishnanagar and other correctional homes. These have been attended by many senior administrative and police officials.
Our main aim has always been to help the inmates return to the mainstream of society as conscientious and responsible members. Two of our literacy class students contributed five hundred rupees each towards tsunami relief work. This was their savings from the wages they received from work in the jail. These wages are a nominal sum (about fifteen rupees per day) and this money they would normally send to their own families. We have also been approached by the inmates to help with their children’s schooling or with the treatment of the sick in their families. The Ashrama has responded to these requests. Recently one such boy has joined our boys’ hostel.
Nearly ninety per cent of the inmates are from poor families. The government cannot as yet provide all their basic necessities. We help out with provision of saris, lungis, warm clothing in winter, spectacles for the visually impaired, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and other such items of daily use in Malda, Balurghat and Islampur jails.
An allopathic physician attends to patients in Malda jail for two hours daily, seven days a week. Several homeopaths—including Br Amaleshachaitanya, a monastic member of our Ashrama, who is also a trained homeopath— see patients once a week.
Ishaq Muhammad is a teacher. He suffers from hypertension and some cardiac ailments for which he had to be taken to hospital from the correctional home. His son came and told us that his father wanted us to visit him, for that would bring him peace. Some of us went to see him at the district hospital. He welcomed us with great feeling. We make such hospital visits off and on to keep the sick inmates happy. The prisoners too remember us wherever they are.
The women inmates of Balurghat jail are being trained in handicrafts and singing. Similar programmes for women convicts are being undertaken at Cooch Behar. A touching incident occurred when we were distributing sweets at the Siliguri correctional home during the inauguration of the new library there. One of the women inmates started weeping and said, ‘You are giving us Krishna’s prasad (she thought it was so), but why has He placed me in such a painful situation?’ I said to her, ‘Ma, do you remember for what length of time Krishna’s own mother was in prison? Seven of her eight children were born in prison and were brutally murdered soon after birth. Krishna Himself was born in jail. Also remember how Jesus suffered in life. He was crucified.’ A Nigerian prisoner, who happened to be nearby, also started weeping on hearing this. I also said, ‘Pray to God for mental peace and think of the welfare of all.’ Then she said, ‘Bhagavan Krishna won’t be offended with me, will He?’ As I assured her that He would not, I was reminded of Swami Vivekananda’s emphatic statement that divinity resides in every being. Incidents such as these have revealed to us the truth of Swamiji’s words.
When we started the training programme in candle-making for women prisoners at the Malda correctional home, several inmates voiced similar sentiments: ‘Why are we in jail?’ Incidentally, it may be worth noting here that a majority of the undertrials would ultimately be declared not guilty. We cannot secure the release of these prisoners. We try to get them some peace of mind even when they spend time in confinement. They remember their children and other family members and this makes them sad. We have introduced prayers to soothe their sadness. Engagement in prison activities (including reading, drawing and singing) also keeps them in good cheer. We also tell them to encourage their children to study well when they come to meet them. At the beginning not all women were willing to participate in the training, but within a few days all of them had changed their minds. There are at present about twelve women volunteers helping out with women’s programmes at Raiganj, Balurghat and Malda.
Several inmates at the Malda correctional home are not able to pay for their lawyers and so the judicial hearing of their cases is getting delayed. We have helped five such inmates through lawyers closely associated with our Ashrama. Advocate Gajendranath Saha has been providing legal aid free of charge.
Rafiqul Islam had been arrested on charges of pickpocketing. Four hundred rupees were to be deposited as security for him to be bailed out. His father was employed with the police department and did not come forward with the money out of shame. Sri Saha and Sri Barin Ghosh, another devotee, came forward as guarantors for Rafiqul. The judge told Rafiqul to visit the Ashrama once in three months when he came to attend court. Rafiqul has obeyed the judge all these months.
We have been speaking primarily about the efforts made by Ramakrishna Mission centres for the welfare of the correctional-home inmates. More wonderful is the story of these inmates’ efforts at self-help and the noble sentiments of help, harmony and service that they cherish. But that must wait until next month.