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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

Prof. Vijay Raghavan Tell Us How Prayas Has Been Rehabilitating Women Prisoners For 28 Years

  • IWB Post
  •  August 13, 2018

Sometimes one mistake is all it takes to condemn you for life. But everyone deserves a second chance in life especially when he/she is willing to mend their ways and live a life of dignity. We at IWB strongly believe that.

This Independence’s day, IWB is collaborating with and sharing the stories of Prayas, a TISS Field Action Project dedicated to transforming the lives of vulnerable groups coming in contact with the criminal justice system. This feature will focus on their work with women prisoners. We will be sharing the stories of exceptional work done by the project and would also be conducting workshops for the women that Prayas works for.

Prayas came into existence 28 years ago in 1990. Since then, they have been relentlessly working towards the betterment and rehabilitation of women prisoners, women rescued from Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE), children of women prisoners and women rescued from CSE, children in conflict with the law and male youth offenders.

The mission of the project is “to contribute knowledge and insight to the current understanding of aspects of CJS policy and process in India – with specific reference to socioeconomically vulnerable and excluded communities, groups and individuals who are at greater risk of being criminalised, or exposed to trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.” We recently reached out to Prof. Vijay Raghavan who teaches at the Centre for Criminology and Justice, TISS and also leads Prayas, and got into a detailed conversation with him so as to understand the work of the project.

Here are excerpts from the interaction:

“We are currently working with six prisons in Maharashtra and Gujarat,” Vijay shares. He goes on to explain how Prayas’ work starts with visits by social workers to correctional institutions like prisons and shelter homes for women. “There they sit in the barracks, talk to these women and try to understand their issues and problems,” he explains. Having worked in the field for almost 30 years now, Prayas has a mechanism to deal with all these issues.

Lawyer issues

Vijay shares, “Sometimes the women lack legal help, in other instances, they are not in touch with their lawyers. In cases when the women don’t have any legal help.” Prayas can help them in two ways, by either connecting them with their panel of lawyers or by helping them reach out to government free legal aid.

“The problem with the government free legal aid is that some of these lawyers don’t do the work properly. In such situations, we ensure to provide these women with one of the lawyers from our own panel,” he says.

In other cases, where many of these women are not in touch with their lawyers, the social workers contact the lawyers and request them to take interest in their cases. Many women prisoners don’t even get to make it to the court on the dates of hearing due to lack of police escorts to take them to court. Prayas brings such cases to the notice of the prison authorities to try and ensure that they are produced on their next court date.

Children and childcare issues

A major concern of these women prisoners remains the well being and care taking of their children. Prayas extends its assistance in the childcare of these children, “both in the cases when they are living inside the prison with their mothers and also in cases where they are living outside, whether in shelter homes or with their families (depending on the situation),” shares Vijay.

Prayas also started the first balvadi for children living in prison with their mothers (below the age of six) in the early nineties at Arthur Road Prison in Mumbai, for the wholesome development of the children who live in the jails with their mothers. This initiative has now been taken over by the Department of Women and Child Development, Govt. of Maharashtra, and through the advocacy efforts of Prayas, such balwadis have been started in 7 prisons across the state. The balwadis, known as anganwadis, are run under the Integrated Child Development Scheme, for providing children with pre-school education and supplementary nutrition.

Prayas tries to ensure that the children of women prisoners who live outside the prison are safe with their families and conduct home visits for the same. If they are not, they are brought to the notice of the Child Welfare Committees under the Juvenile Justice Act by Prayas social workers and shifted to shelter homes as per the provisions of the Act. For children who are living with their families, Prayas provides financial support for their educational expenses, apart from supporting medical, emergency, rationing, or housing support, as per the needs of these children.

Meeting with the family

There are times when either the woman prisoner has lost touch with her family, or when the family lives in another city or state and it is difficult to arrange for a meeting between the woman in prison and her children left outside. Prayas puts in relentless efforts in orchestrating these meetings for the well being of the prisoner and her family.

Health Problems

Living in the grim cells, the prisoners often face health issues, both physical and mental. Prayas tries to ensure that the women get proper medical assistance. Once these women are out, the social workers escort the women to a hospital whenever necessary. Women suffering from mental illnesses are linked with psychiatric care facilities as well.

“While initially these women are distrusting and reluctant to open up, once they realise that we really want to help them and they have someone who cares for them, they slowly start to open up,” says Vijay. Thus, they become more vocal, share their problems in detail and also the circumstances leading to the crime.

While the social workers provide all the possible assistance to their clients (as they call them in social work practice jargon) while they are in prison, the real task begins when they are out. This is when a rigorous process of social and economic rehabilitation starts.

Here are the major target areas as shared by Vijay:

Shelter

More often than not, going to prison tarnishes the image of an individual and this is why many of these women avoid going back to the places where they lived before the imprisonment. “Sometimes both their marital and natal families disown them owing to social stigma,” Vijay shares. In such cases, Prayas first tries to get these women into shelter homes and then starts working on their empowerment. There are also instances when they help them get a house on rent and bear their rent for a while till they become financially independent.

Employment: NGO Placement Program

Economic independence is integral to the rehabilitation process. While sometimes Prayas helps these women with training or placement, there are times when they find income options for themselves.

Prayas, however, has designed a special rehabilitation programme for such women, which they call the NGO Placement Programme, where the aim is to train and equip these women with the necessary skills to make their own living and to sustain their family. They have tied up with other NGOs and organizations where these women are placed for on-the-job training for a sustained period of time.

The women also get to choose their area of interest. For example, Vijay shares how a woman told them that she wanted to work with kids and was placed with an NGO that works with children.

Vijay tells us that “during their training period, the women are given a stipend of Rs. 3000 along with the travelling expenses.”

In addition to that, and depending from case to case, the organization pays the house rent, their children’s fees and provides medical assistance as well. “It is a supported programme and can last anywhere from 3 months to 3 years,” he explains.

He further adds, “The NGO Placement programme has yielded pretty good results.” After the training, the women are free to work with the organization if they confirm her as a permanent employee, to find some other organization to work with or to start something of her own. “In some cases, they are also provided capital to start some small enterprise, depending on case to case basis though,” he adds.

Documents

In many cases, these women don’t have the necessary documents to even open a bank account. That is why “Prayas has a social worker whose whole sole responsibility is to look over the documentation process,” Vijay tells me.

Besides all of this, there is no denying that these women have to face a lot of social stigmas which eventually affects them psychologically and emotionally. Like already mentioned, most of the times, these women refrain from living in the same area that they inhabited before going to prison. “They have to change their houses and we help them with the same,” shares Vijay.

The women come out of prison in extremely vulnerable states. They have to deal with a lot of psychological issues, depression being the most common of them. They are in need of the kind of counseling which is not freely available to them and is generally very expensive. Plus, they also become easy prey to predatory men owing to their vulnerable conditions.

To add to it, they struggle with a lot of health issues, T.B. and skin ailments being the most common of them. Prayas helps these women in dealing with all these problems and getting medical assistance and therapy wherever necessary.

But it is the psychological issues that haunt them the most. “Having gone to prison, their self-esteem gets affected negatively. They lose confidence in their capabilities and may develop a poor self-image. The continuous association with Prayas gives them the confidence that somebody believes in their capabilities and is there to support them,” says Vijay.

Vijay tells me very honestly that the picture is not always that rosy though. “While there are women who make promises to our social workers that they will come to Prayas after getting out of prison, not everyone really shows up. There could be a number of reasons for this, including lack of trust in Prayas to help change their lives or dependence on men who exploit their emotional vulnerabilities. When we try to follow up these cases, we find out that they have changed their residence and thus there are no leads.” Obviously, there is not much that Prayas can do in such a situation except keeping its door open to these women with a promise that states, “We are available, come to us if you are in need.”

Thus, this Independence day, IWB is joining hands with Prayas in the fight that these women are waging to reverse the mire of their mistakes and the stigma that has followed them, and to help them live a life of dignity, where they embrace their independence, with their heads held high.

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